I had heard about Elephant Nature Park a while ago…
No, I’m not kidding. It actually happened.
I checked into the Sepilok Jungle Resort so that I could have a look at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre next door. Palm oil plantations are growing across Borneo and the forests are shrinking. This has devastated the orang-utan population. Life can be pretty bleak for orang-utans. It’s not unusual for orang-utans to end up in plantations and to be found starving. Sometimes an orphan baby is found. The centre was created to help rehabilitate and save these displaced animals.
Baby orang-utans require a mother to care for them for up to the first five to ten years of their lives. They learn everything from their mother. How to climb, what to eat and how to eat it, how to build a nest. Basically, without a mother they won’t survive. Volunteers and staff at the centre become surrogate mothers and teach the orphans what they need to survive. Once they reach about 4 or 5 years old they are weaned off human contact and slowly coaxed out into the Sepilok Kabili Forest Reserve. The reserve is largely primary rainforest covering over ten thousand acres.
Orang-utans are obviously a big draw for tourists. It’s a fine line between over-exposing the animals and receiving funding by allowing people in. The centre lets people to come in and observe the orang-utans twice a day at one of the closer feeding platforms. It is an incredible experience to see these animals up close when they are free to roam. Seeing them swing in from the tree line is unforgettable and it does make you feel sad for the ones confined in zoos around the globe. Orang-utans are graceful and majestic in their natural habitat. They are also very intelligent and just a bit cheeky. Tourists are advised to keep their distance from them but that doesn’t mean that they won’t come up close to you. The day I went there was one sitting above the tourist group on the metal canopy and she seemed to find it amusing to drop sticks and nuts on people. Like I said, cheeky.
It is very difficult to keep the animals away and with resorts so close to the reserve it is fairly common for some of the orang-utans to visit them. That is how I had my first encounter with one. I had heard that there was the possibility of seeing an orang-utan in the resort and I was informed that for the last few days one had been visiting the pool area in the afternoons. Like I needed another reason to spend my afternoon by the pool! So I put on my swimsuit and headed down to the pool. The pool itself was lovely and definitely worth the RM5 entry fee. After a day in the sweat-inducing humidity there is nothing better than slipping into a pool. I spent a few hours floating, always keeping a keen eye out for possible orang-utans.
I hung around right until the pool closed. But, unfortunately, there were no orang-utans to be seen. So with disappointment I headed back to my room for a quick shower before going to the resort cafe for dinner. I decided now would be a good time to upload my photos from my camera so I brought my computer with me. I picked a table over-looking the pond right at the edge of the restaurant. There weren’t many other people around. Just a few of the staff and another couple sitting at at a table across from me. Service was prompt. I had barely sat down before I was presented with a menu. I placed my order and then set up my computer to import my photos. The server brought me my watermelon juice out first. It was lovely and refreshing. So as I sat there, attention fixed firmly on my computer, I didn’t notice what was about to happen. I jumped as a reddish brown shape moved into my peripheral vision. Oh my god! There was an orang-utan right next to me! My heart skipped a beat as he reached across the table. He wanted my juice.
After a moment to recover I quickly rescued my computer from underneath him and moved it out of harms way. To say I was stunned would probably be an understatement. I was reduced to fits of shock induced laughter as one of the staff enticed him away with a bottle of milk. It took at least ten minutes before I had recovered enough to grab my camera. I later found out that his name is Pugle (I’m not entirely sure that’s how it’s spelled). He is one of the rehabilitated orang-utans from next door. This is quite a common occurrence for the resort and staff from the rehabilitation centre will usually come and relocate them back to the sanctuary. Unfortunately, this is probably so common because resort staff feed them. It’s something that they really shouldn’t be doing. Pugle hung around for about half an hour posing along the railing as resort patrons snapped photo after photo.
I will never forget my close encounter with a semi-wild orang-utan. It’s not something that should have happened but it has definitely been the highlight of my trip so far. I think a trip to Sepilok should be on every animal and nature lover’s itinerary for Sabah. It is definitely worth it. I also did a guided night time walk through the orang-utan sanctuary. We saw a few green pit vipers, bats, a flying squirrel, giant ants, lantern bugs and even a slow loris!
You can stay at the Jungle Resort for as little as RM33 a night in a four-bed dorm. Using the pool does cost an extra RM5 per day but it is worth it. The Banana Cafe is a bit pricey for the food you get. So bring some snacks with you. There is also a nicer restaurant at the Forest Edge Resort which is just a five minute walk further up the track past the Jungle Resort. It’s pricey too but a better atmosphere. You don’t need to be staying there to eat at their restaurant. Entry to the Orang-utan Centre is RM30 each plus an extra RM10 if you want to take a camera with you. Your ticket is valid for the whole day. They have feedings at 10am and 3pm everyday. You should arrive at least half an hour beforehand though. It’s also good to note that it is more crowded at the morning feeding because that’s when the tour groups come in. The guided night walk I did cost RM30 for an hour. We had the receptionist at the resort arrange it for us. But don’t let them tell the centre that you’re coming from the resort. They’ll try to charge you more.
I thoroughly enjoyed my two nights in Sepilok. It was probably my favourite place in Sabah. I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up going back some day.