On the northeast coast of Borneo lies Sandakan. The gateway to visiting some of Asia’s cutest but most endangered animals.
The vivid orange-furred Orangutans and long-nosed Proboscis Monkeys – icons of Malaysia – Bornean Pygmy elephant and the lesser known Bornean Sun Bears all call this Malaysian State home. They each call Sabah home. But as the dense rainforest that covers the land recedes so too does the population of these, and many other, animals.
When people say ‘Borneo’ I immediately associate the area with orangutans. Both species – the Bornean and Sumatran – of these cute, orange furred apes are listed as Critically Endangered, having faced decreasing populations due to destruction and fragmentation of their habitats, poaching and a spate of recurrent forest fires.
While the number of Sumatran orangutans in Indonesia number just under 6,700 and estimates suggest that 11,000 Bornean Orangutans lived there with around 55,000 estimated to live throughout Borneo.
These numbers are low but here is hope.
A number of organisations globally and in Sabah are working to inform and educate humans & rescue and rehabilitate orangutans – a win/win for the species. Just a short drive away from Sandakan you can visit one such place.
Picking up an admission ticket and camera ticket – both costing around AU$12, which goes towards renovations and upkeep of the Centre – and watching the welcome video, I soon headed into the park to begin the search.
It wasn’t long until I heard a rustle of leaves. I slowed my pace along the wooden boardwalk which winded through the jungle. Ben, my guide to Sabah and avid nature lover, carefully watched the bushes as we continued moving forward, slowly and with less sound. Then, just a few metres in front of us, a monkey jumped onto the handrail of the boardwalk and stopped. Staring at us.
Before I had the chance to pull my camera out he had disappeared back into the dense jungle surrounding the boardwalk. Ben simply said, “long-tailed macaque.” We were still in search of Orangutans.
Opened in 1964 by Englishwoman Barbara Harrison, Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre was set up on 43 sq km of protected land as the first place in the world dedicated to rehabilitating orangutans and help baby orangutans orphaned from deforestation, logging, illegal hunting or to help those who had been kept as pets. Specialist medical care and nurturing are provided with some orangutans requiring up to seven years of care before being able to be released. While the focus of the centre is to rehabilitate the orangutans to be eventually released back into the wild, some simply cannot be.
Ben told me that they couldn’t guarantee how many orangutans would be seen – being that it is an open park and the rangers purposely supplying a rather boring offering of bananas, milk and fruit to encourage the orangutans to look for their own food – so I was pleased to see two swinging around the Nursery playground when we arrived.
The Nursery is the newest area at the Centre having been built-in 2014 for young orangutans that needed more care before being released into the rehabilitation centre. It’s definitely the most fun area as you’ll see the young apes swinging and climbing on the rope bridges, and making daring leaps that collectively made all the onlookers gasp.
The viewing area for the Nursery is behind plexiglass windows, so it’s not the best for photos, but after the steamy walk along the boardwalk, it’s a lovely cool escape with plenty of comfy seating to watch these curious creatures enjoy some food.
Walking back along the boardwalk a crowd was already gathering around the viewing deck as feeding time drew near.
The Feeding Area is an open-air viewing platform, so be sure to bring a fan with you while you wait for feeding time because in the dense jungle it gets steamy!
Feeding time happens at 10am and again at 3pm, and it’s not long after the ranger appears on the platform that you’ll hear rustling in the trees and orangutans and monkeys will appear. Only one orangutan wanted to join in for the free meal that morning – a good thing as it means that the others are learning to hunt for themselves and being rehabilitated – but there were plenty of (naughty!) pig-tailed macaques there to keep us entertained as they grabbed the food and ran away; the orangutan looking perplexed why as he just sat and chilled out with melon in hand.
If you are visiting the Centre to take photography I personally think this is the best area to take photos, so head there early to get a good spot.
Regardless of your intentions, please be quiet! There aren’t many rules at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre but they do ask that you keep quiet so that you and the other visitors may see these shy creatures emerge from the jungle – that’s why you are there, right?! So don’t yell and shout whenever you see an orangutan, please don’t stomp on the boardwalk and hopefully, everyone will catch sight of these incredibly majestic creatures.
After a morning with the orangutans, head next door to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) to discover another of the States cutest inhabitants.
Bornean Sun Bears are the smallest bears in the world and only found in Southeast Asia. Some scientists have estimated that there may be only 10,000 Sun Bears left in the world, though reliable sightings and the rapid loss of their habitats mean reporting these numbers are unreliable. It is agreed by experts that the Sun Bears population is decreasing rapidly, estimated to be by about 30% over the past 30 years.
Founded in 2008 by Doctor Wong Siew Te, BSBCC is the only sun bear conservation centre in the world set up to provide education to the public and, more importantly, care and rehabilitation to rescued sun bears.
Malayan sun bears are under threat, and considered Vulnerable, because of the continued deforestation of their home, hunting for their body parts (the bear’s gall bladders and bile are highly prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine and, while rare, some people do still eat bear meat) and capturing them to be sold as pets due to the cubs small size and cuteness.
Currently, at BSBCC you’ll find around 42 rescued sun bears. Some of them are behind rehabilitated – Dr Wong Siew Te likes to call the Centre a half way house for these bears – but some won’t be able to be released and have found peace and a home at the Centre. All of them have been rescued from circuses, cages and after being orphaned.
Ask the staff, or read one of the books which tell the bears tales. One bear named Mary was captured by a poacher and kept as a pet. Due to being malnourished, she has a smaller body than the other bears. She also used to walk on her hind legs, having lived with humans for most of her life, but after socialising with bears she walks around on all four paws again.
Some of the bears do show signs of stress. Pacing in their enclosures – mimicking the tiny spaces they grew up in – or excessive grooming are just two signs.
Known for their jet black fur and crescent-shaped marking on their chest, Sun Bears are the smallest of the world’s eight bear species, with adult males standing at around 1.5 metres (or five feet). That’s not their only unique characteristics. Sun Bears also have the longest claws of any type of bear (perfect to help them climb trees. Yes, climb trees!) to help them climb into the rainforest canopy in search of honey, fruits, and small reptiles to feast on; and
As I gazed over the bear’s enclosure, Dr Wong was explaining to two guests that the cream mark on each bears chest was unique and different to each bear, like a fingerprint.
While Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre seemed more natural and spacious, I had mixed feelings about BSBCC. It felt smaller and did have electric fences to separate the enclosures. While it was later explained to me that it was because the bears are more territorial, it’s still not a nice thing to see.
Regardless of my feelings, the work being done here is for the good of the Sun Bears and other animals that are rehabilitated in the park (Ben told me a Pygmy Elephant had just left). With deforestation such a huge problem as the world’s appetite for Palm Oil only grows, Dr Wong worries than sun bears are “the forgotten bears”.
“Sun Bears aren’t very well-known,” Dr Wong explained, “many NGOs have not wanted to work with them, preferring better-known species like orangutans, elephants, rhinos and so on.”
With more funding and revenue raised by visitors coming to the park, more bears can be rescued and hopefully, over time, rehabilitated, helping lift the sun bears population numbers.
There is hope.
One of the nicest parts of visiting BSBCC is that Dr Wong and the other staff always seem to be nearby and are eager to help you discover more about the sun bears and each of the bears personal stories. Dr Wong even pointed out one that was just ‘hanging around’….
Now it’s over to you
Is seeing orangutans on your bucket list?
Have you heard of sun bears before?
What would you do on a trip to Sabah?
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Adult (17+) – RM30
Children – RM15
Malaysians are charged at a discounted rated.
A fee to bring your camera/video camera/camera phone into the park costs RM10.00.
Notes: Watch the orangutans get fed by rangers and get close up(ish) photos with them during the feeding time which takes place twice a day at 10am and 3pm. You’ll also spot long-tailed macaques in the park!
It’s not guaranteed you will see any orangutans, in fact, it’s quite a privilege to see them. While it’s sad if you don’t see them at feeding times know that it’s for the best of the animal because they are learning to feed and – hopefully! – rehabilitating themselves! All money is used at the Centre to improve the facilities and care for more animals.
Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Opening hours: 9am – 3:30pm. Open daily including holidays.
Adults (18+) RM31.80
12 – 17 – RM15.90
Under 12 – free
Malaysians are charged at a discounted rated.
A camera fee of RM1,000 is charged for people with lenses 500mm and above.
How to get to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Sabah is situated in Malaysia, on the island of Borneo which is divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei to the north, and Indonesia to the south.
There are no direct flights to Kota Kinabalu (BKI), Sabah’s biggest city, from Australia but it is easy to connect in Kuala Lumpur (flying Malaysia Airlines or AirAsia), Bandar Seri Begawan (flying Royal Brunei Airlines), or Singapore (flying Singapore Airlines connecting with regional sister airline SilkAir).
There are also a number of direct flights from South Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other regions of Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu.
For more information on travelling to Sabah, check out the Sabah Tourism website.
I was a guest of the Sabah Tourism Board.
All thoughts and opinions were, as always, my own.