Borneo has always been the stuff of legend, dreams and nature documentaries for me. I wanted to go there long before I ever knew anything about the place (that seems to be a running theme in my life) except for the fact that orangutans lived there. Hey, it’s as good a reason as any, right?
This huge island is actually made up of parts of three different countries – eastern Malaysia, a province of Indonesia, and the entirety of teeny Brunei. Many people searching for the endangered Orangutan choose to explore the thick, uninhabited jungles of Indonesia’s Kalimantan province. For timing reasons, I ended up finding them on the Malaysian side of the island.
I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again (sorry) – I only feel I’ve really seen a species if I see it in the wild. As much as I wanted to do a multi-day trek into the jungle to find the truly wild orangutans in either Sarawak or Kalimantan, my time/budget didn’t allow me to do that. In hindsight, I may have been able to make it work, but I’m trying not to dwell on that.
So I settled for visiting the rehabilitation centre at Semenggoh near the city of Kuching. The centre used to have a bad reputation, but the rehab side of operations has been transferred elsewhere, so the nature reserve is now just a home for its current residents. Over 25 semi-wild primates live in the 7 square kilometre rainforest area, free to roam about. Twice a day, food is delivered to a feeding platform, but it’s up to the orangutans to decide if they want to come or not. Usually, three or four will show up, often including the dominant – and scarily impressive – alpha-male named Ritchie.
The day I visited, no orangutans appeared in the morning session, so I returned that afternoon and was happy to see several apes of various sizes. Their agility is incredible, they climb up and down the branches with astonishing speed, crack open coconuts and stare at you with disinterested nonchalence. But the wonder and awe I felt seeing them high up in the trees by HQ was unfortunately tempered by then watching them drink from milk bottles provided by the rangers, and the casual way they walked through the crowd. Not to mention the ridiculous number of selfie-sticks getting in all my photos.
I felt really conflicted – could this count as seeing wild orangutans? On one hand, they were free to come and go as they pleased, and many were completely self-sustaining within the forest and experienced almost no contact with humans. That’s a wild animal, right? On the other hand – oh look, it’s drinking from a milk bottle. To this day, I still haven’t made up my mind if I can count this experience or not.
There are arguments for and against these types of rehabilitation centres. Similar to zoos, they provide an opportunity for people to experience these critically endangered animals up close, and to educate them on the issues they are facing. After all, why would someone feel the need to protect something that has never had an impact on their life? I don’t support zoos, but at least these animals are living in their natural environment. With illegal logging devastating the rainforest habitat of the orangutans, they need all the protection they can get. However, there is the fact that many areas home to truly wild orangutans are almost never visited by tourists. The lack of attention on these areas have allowed logging companies to continue operating unobserved. The more people that visit the national parks and wild areas of Borneo, the more pressure this puts on governments to protect them.
The Bornean Orangutan population has declined by 60% in the last 60 years alone. Poaching, habitat destruction and the illegal pet trades are the largest contributors to this. An even greater fall has been seen in the numbers of the Sumatran Orangutan. Just like elephants, rhinos and big cats, the orangutan is an iconic species that may not survive much longer. Surely it is our responsibility to prevent this?
Though I am glad I was able to see healthy, happy orangutans enjoying a (mostly) natural life, I still wish I could have seen fully wild ones. If you want to see these amazing creatures in their native habitat, I highly encourage you to make the extra effort I didn’t, and head deeper into the wilderness to see them properly. It’s an experience I missed out on, and I would hate for others to miss out on it too.
It’s easy to get from mainland Malaysia to Sarawak, as regular flights go between Kuala Lumpur and Kuching. You’ll even get an extra stamp in your passport because Sarawak has its own immigration policies!
Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centre is about 45 minutes by bus from the station in Kuching. The bus drops you right at the gate to the reserve and like all public transport in South Asia, is extremely cheap.
The centre closes in between the two feeding times, so if you want to return in the afternoon you must find something to occupy your time. Some people go all the way back to Kuching, but I decided to stay in nearby Ten Mile Bazaar for that time. There’s a couple of restaurants and shops, and surprisingly a Pitcher Plant Garden. There’s a small entry fee, not much to see, but at the very least it’s a nice place to sit down for a while before heading back to the centre.
Kuching is a popular stop on the tourist trail, so there are plenty of hostels and accommodation options available. The city is fairly interesting, with plenty of restaurant options and nice architecture. I stayed at the Radioman Heritage Hostel, which was really nice and in a great central location.
Bako National Park is within (a long) day-trip distance from Kuching and is well-known for it’s incredible scenery, hikes and the opportunity to see wild proboscis monkeys. Another missed opportunity for me, as I let bad weather deter me (it cleared up quickly, but I had missed the bus). It’s common to spend a few days at the Park as well.
If you’re interested in seeing orangutans in the wild, check out thispost on Lonely Planet, with great details on the various places you can see them, including very off-the-beaten-track ones. It’s a little out of date, but a great place to get some ideas.
What do you think – can I tick orangutans off my wild animals bucket list? What are your feelings on wildlife centres versus national parks? Tell me in the comments below!
I'm a traveller and zoologist who is passionate about seeing the world and the incredible creatures who inhabit it. I love planning new adventures, working with wildlife around the world and promoting ethical animal encounters and volunteer opportunities.
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