Home of the Red Apes of Borneo

Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre

Almost everyone in the world has heard of the orang-utans. These tree-climbing primates have been glamorized by the media, appeared in Hollywood and can be seen in most zoos world-wide. The 'orang-utan' which means 'Man of the Forest' or 'Jungle Man' in Malay, is also known as the Red Ape - the largest tree-living mammal and the only great ape in Asia.

It isn' t hard to understand why the Malays call the primates 'orang-utan' . Incredibly human in behaviour - gentle, curious and playful - the orang-utans live amid the vast tropical forests, and under ideal conditions roam the forests in search of widely-distributed food sources such as fruits, plants and insects. The same size as that of a human baby when it is a toddler, an orang-utan can weight up to 90 kilograms or more upon reaching adulthood. Unfortunately, not many do. Just like the Siberian tiger, the orang-utan faces the threat of extinction. Unless proper measures are taken to protect them, the orang-utans will eventually become a thing of the past.

Found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the orang-utans have long been victims of poaching and forest clearance activities such as logging and agriculture. Prehistorically their numbers were believed to be in the hundreds of thousands. Now, however, their numbers in the wild have dropped to a mere 20 - 27,000.

Unhappy about the situation, both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments undertook serious steps to protect the orang-utan population and avoid their numbers from plummeting further. Centres carrying out conservation tasks were set up. One such centre is the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, 43 square kilometres of old forest reserve. Located in Sabah (which forms part of Malaysia) on the northern tip of Borneo, Sepilok sets out to rehabilitate orphaned orang-utans or those which have been kept captive, back to jungle life.

On completion of their rehabilitation exercise, some orang-utans remain at Sepilok. Others, however, are moved to other forest reserves such as the Danum Valley Conservation Area, the Tabin Wildlife Reserve and the Kulamba Wildlife Reserve. The rehabilitation process, as it became popularly known, has met with varying degrees of success in its effort to nurse the primates back to jungle life. Some of the orang-utans disappeared, some died, and some grew to live a semi-natural existence. Some, however, were successfully rehabilitated to survive unaided in the forest. In fact, some even mated with wild orang-utans and produced babies.

Aside from orang-utans, people too come to Sepilok - but of course, not for rehabilitation purposes. Apart from its rehabilitation and conservation exercises, Sepilok also serves as one of the major tourist attractions in Sabah. It has received a steady flow of visitors since its inception in 1964, including world figures such as Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, who is also President Emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) - an organisation involved in the conservation of endangered species, including the orang-utans.

What magnetizes those who come to Sepilok is that unlike in a zoo, visitors can see something they won' t be able to find anywhere else - orang-utans roaming in the wild.

At Sepilok, visitors can be assured of sighting the orang-utans climbing and swinging from branch to branch with their long arms. And if they are lucky, they can even see female orang-utans with their babies holding onto them as they 'walk' from tree to tree. Visitors at Sepilok are also allowed to watch the twice-daily feeding of the orang-utans, when the primates are given bananas and milk. It is a worthwhile sight to see.

As one visitor put it:" Sepilok offers insights into nature and also helps instil awareness among people of the importance of caring for the environment." And perhaps, with the growing awareness of nature conservation, the orang-utans may once again prosper and grow undisturbed in the wild.