In 2017 we had one of the most amazing holidays in Borneo. A trip to this incredible island would not be complete without a Borneo orangutan tour and we were lucky enough to spot some Orangutans in the wild while staying at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge in Sabbah. Wanting to make sure that we would get to see orangutans on our holiday we also decided to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre run by the Orangutan Appeal in the United Kingdom. We did some research and it seemed to check out as a great, ethical centre and we wrote an article about Sepilok and the destructive palm oil trade.
Recently the plight of Orangutans and their natural habitat has been trending in the news after Iceland’s banned Christmas advert about Rang-Tan and the Palm oil trade. This lead to several conversations about orangutan sanctuaries and the ethics behind them. We recently learnt that Sepilok may not be as great as we had previously thought and they may actually be causing more harm to orangutans making them unable to be rehabilitated.
If you are planning any Borneo holidays and you want see orangutans, Google the phrase ‘orangutan sanctuary Borneo’ and one of the first results to come up is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. It is an incredibly popular tourist destination. Having already written to promote Sepilok we feel that we need to provide a broader picture about the place to help you make informed choices about travelling ethically. These situations are never black and white and bad help may still be better than no help at all. To help you make up your mind here is what you should know:
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is located in Sabbah, a Malaysian district in north Borneo. Sepilok was founded to rehabilitate orphaned orangutans and to return them to the wild and was built on 43 square kilometers of protected land at the edge of the Kabili Sepilok Forest reserve. On their website they claim to have between 60 and 80 orangutans living free on the reserve with an additional 25 orphaned, baby orangutans living in their nurseries.
The centre is considered a useful education tool by the Malaysian Wildlife Department to educate both locals and tourists on their holidays. Sepilok is open daily to allow visitors the opportunity to go on orangutan tours in the reserve and there is a viewing room to see the young orangutans playing outside their nurseries. There are two specific feeding times where food is put out to attract orangutans closer to the walkways for visitors to see them.
The problem with Sepilok
On the surface Sepilok looks like a fantastic sanctuary for the orangutans and a great stop on your Borneo holidays. The orangutans are cared for, protected, fed and the goal is to rehabilitate them. But Sepilok itself is a potential threat to the well-being of the animals they profess to care for.
Best practices for rehabilitation
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sets out in-depth guidelines when it comes to great ape tourism and, unfortunately, Sepilok falls far short of these. The first major problem is that of disease. Humans share 97% of the same DNA as orangutans so diseases like Tuberculosis and Hepatitis can be passed from one to the other. If an orangutan catches a disease like this they can never be rehabilitated and have to spend the rest of their lives in captivity. There are tours that fetch tourists directly from the airport at the start of their Borneo holidays and bring them to Sepilok where there is an incredibly high chance of someone having caught a disease that hasn’t become apparent yet. The IUCN recommends keeping at least a ten meter distance from orangutans at all times to help prevent the spread of diseases but with the open walkways of Sepilok it is not uncommon to have orangutans come right up to visitors.
The second major problem is orangutans becoming habituated with humans. Because the orangutans are exposed to human visitors all day, every day, they lose their caution of humans and human areas like hotels that surround the centre. This habituation leads to orangutans being harmed or killed as highlighted in this article on an orangutan who was killed by an electric fence just outside the centre. Habituated orangutans also can’t be released into the wild. The IUCN guidelines call for no more than a single visit to orangutans in a day and in groups no larger than seven. Even though this guideline is aimed more at viewing wild orangutans, the huge crowds that are attracted to the eco-tourist promotion of Sepilok are causing the animals to become habituated. As you can see from the photo above their are dozens of tourists around the orangutan, and that is only a tiny fraction of those enjoying their Borneo holidays at Sepilok.
Volunteering to work with orangutans
In the early years of an orangutan’s development it needs to develop bonds of familiarity and trust. A baby orangutan will stay with its mother for around 7 years. So when orphaned orangutans arrive at any sanctuary, they need to be in an environment that lets them become familiar with their handlers so they can develop properly.
Often volunteer programmes will offer direct interaction with the animals to attract as many volunteers as possible who would like to do something different in their holidays. These programmes only last for a month or so which means that any orphaned orangutans will be passed from volunteer to volunteer without being able to develop the much needed familiarity. Sepilok is one of these sanctuaries and they continue with this practice despite protests against it. So what is a fun holiday activity for some people could be a traumatic event for these orphaned orangutans.
An ideal volunteer program would not allow for volunteers to interact directly with baby orangutans. That kind of work should only be handled by permanent staff with the correct training. If you really care about the well-being of the animals, the satisfaction of making their lives better without direct interaction should be enough.
Planning your Borneo holidays
Orangutan conservation is essential as their natural habitat continues to decline due to deforestation. Centres like Sepilok are important in protecting these vulnerable animals and do need support from tourists and volunteers to grow, but it is necessary to do proper research into these centres before visiting them. On the particular subject of orangutans the Friends of the Orangutans (FOTO) is a good place to start when planning your Borneo holidays. Providing news and information on current events affecting orangutans and other endangered species in Malaysia, FOTO provides the resources to make an informed decision as a responsible tourist.
Also make sure to read up on how to make informed decisions on ethical tourism to make sure your money is supporting those who need it the most, be it wildlife or local communities!
Happy travels and blue skies!
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