Visiting Sepilok: sun bears, orangutans and tourists

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It took very little persuasion to convince me to go on a trip to Sabah in Northern Borneo. I only had one condition- to visit Sepilok and see the orangutans. Sepilok is as famous for its wildlife conservation and rehabilitation as it is for the animals it rehabilitates and it rightly sits atop the tree for must see attractions in Borneo. I almost didn’t care what I did for the rest of the trip, just so long as I could lay eyes on a big, red-haired, monkey from close range.
Ever since a safari trip in Tanzania a few years ago, I’ve found the idea of seeing animals in their natural habitat as the apex of animal observation and enjoyment. As a result, zoos have lost all appeal. I probably held an element of guilt as well. When I was both young and dumb, I had visited some animal attractions in Southeast Asia that could have very easily been considered animal exploitation. I have even written about my guilt. So, my resolution has always been to see animals in the wild, or as wild as they could possibly be.
Sepilok is somewhat separate from the city of Sandakan, lying 25 kilometres to the west(ish). I assumed that it would be a town of its own. All the guide books describe it this way and, to a certain extent, that’s not untrue. There’s a few accommodation options and a café of sorts. Buses run back and forth a few times a day from Sandakan, for 5 Ringgit (MYR) one way, and it is a popular destination (the buses are sweat boxes and the trip takes an hour but they make up for that by playing video clips of classic rock songs, not so classic reggae songs and the occasional Malaysian chart topper. Good times). Essentially it is an environmental tourism area where you can find the Rainforest Discovery Centre and, at a carpark at the end of the road, both the Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
The Sun Bear Conservation Centre was the first port of call.

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Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
The Orangutan Rehab Centre next door has two, short opening periods every day, so when it closes after its first session, crowds simply walk the fifty metres across the road to the sun bears- the world’s smallest and Southeast Asia’s only bears.
After paying our entry (30 MYR) we wound our way up to the elevated boardwalk. Crowds milled around viewing platforms to catch a glimpse of rescued sun bears in purpose-built enclosures. A couple sat high in the branches of trees more than fifteen metres from the ground, drawing all the attention.

The viewing platforms had telescopes set up for visitors to get a closer look at the tree dwelling animals, closely guarded by centre staff. These staff had the unique gift of being able to take perfect pictures through the lenses of the telescopes using iPhones. They took picture after picture as queues formed and people handed over cameras and phones. This skill should not be understated but it is limited to work places that have telescopes and animals a distance away. I’m guessing there is reduced job availability for this talent outside the Sun Bear Centre but I’m assuming a strong employee training program.
Around noon the animals were fed and they all scurried down trees to clamber for small berries hurled over the fence by staff. The crowds who had been in orderly queues at telescopes abruptly left not long after, leaving the centre quiet and peaceful. As we were the only people remaining on a platform that had been filled only 15 minutes beforehand, the telescope photographers centre staff began talking to us. They pointed to each bear and knew their name, how long they had been there and the issues each was facing. They also explained that most bears were there because they had been rescued from people’s homes after being kept as pets. That threw me. People who work at these places aren’t just photographers, they know the place and will give you more personalised information than any information board.
While the place felt like zoo that only had one species of animal, that wasn’t a detraction for it. From the elevated boardwalk you get a great view and improved understanding of what the bears are facing.

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Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
NOTE: the majority of the orangutans here are orphans, displaced by deforestation for palm plantations. Take from that what you will.
The Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre has been around since the 1960’s rehabilitating and releasing orphaned orangutans back into the wild. They have two short periods when tourists are able to enter and walk the boardwalks of the forest- 9am – 11am and 2pm – 3.30pm. Entry for non-Malaysians is 30MYR and an extra 10 MYR for cameras (Being charged to use a camera when the chance of seeing an actual orangutan is not guaranteed is a financial masterstroke of the Centre’s behalf). You also cannot take in any bags. I love and respect a place that requires you to place all bags into lockers due to the high chance of theft by orangutan. Damn primate criminals.

The way the Centre works is like this: The place itself is fenceless. The animals are free to come and go as they please. There are a series of feeding platforms; the closest is the only one with a viewing area for tourists and the furthest is a kilometre into the jungle. The large trees in the reserve have ropes strung around for the animals to use as orangutans rarely descend to the ground. Large crowds congregate at the viewing area for the daily ‘feedings’. There is no guarantee that any animals will come during this time (I know I wouldn’t) and it’s a race against the clock before the public are asked to leave again. There is an almost unrealistic expectation from some visitors that orangutans will instinctively flock to the feeding platform and put on a show, high five everyone in the crowd and then sign autographs whilst posing for photographs at the end like an actor after a play. I talked to some English tourists who I met before I went and they were very critical. Their criticism seemed focused on the price of entry and amount of orangutan sighted. The fact remains that in a fenceless reserve, wild animals can and will do what they want. Entry merely helps make the place able to continue operating.
For the impatient, there is a nursery observation area where you can sit in the comfort of air conditioning and watch the infants play.

Our up-close experience happened as we left the nursey area to avoid a tour group who seemed hell bent on stalking us around the Centre and ruining our tranquillity. As we left, two orangutans were walking along the rail of the boardwalk. The bigger one was still only an adolescent yet had arms so long and large he could have ripped mine out of their sockets and beat me over the head with them. It is an intimidating thing to see something so powerful from such close range. Staff are located throughout the Centre, generally telling people to be quiet and being ignored by large tour groups like the one stalking us. Although they do get this intense look in their eye when you stray too close to an animal, and rightly so, sternly telling you to keep moving.
For those who like the idea of seeing an orangutan in its natural habitat and not behind some plexiglass in a zoo exhibit, it’s worth the time.

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I’ll never forget my Dad’s first words to me when I told him I was going on holiday to Borneo and was going to see orangutans and sun bears- “You bastard”. To be fair to my old man, I was gloating and deserved every bit of vitriol. But the fact remained true; I got to witness some endangered animals on their home turf.
I’m not prone to environmental preaching or over exaggeration without reason but the reality is that both of these animals could very well disappear in the wild in our lifetime. That in itself makes the experience these centres offer as a must do if in this part of the world. As tame and controlled as the experiences were, they are all the more memorable knowing that.

Wayward Tip: after visiting the centres, plan for a trip to an ecolodge on the Kinabatangan River to see truly wild animals.

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