Bornean Sanctuaries

24 May 2016

A trip to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and neighbouring Borneon Sun Bear Conservation Centre will leave you with a deeper respect for these amazing creatures.

Imagine you are walking through a rainforest. The raised wooden boardwalk you are on extends deep into the forest ahead of you, surrounded by glorious green foliage. Giant leaves as big as coffee tables are scattered across the jungle floor. Dappled sunlight splashes the walkway, reaching through the thick nest of trees which rise high into the sky around you where birds are flitting back and forth. Enormous bees and butterflies zig-zag drowsily in the air in front of you, making you duck every now and then to avoid them. The wooden path creaks noisily as you pass along, making you soften your step even more as you approach a clearing ahead. You’ve been told to keep your voice down, but there was almost no need for that notice as the awed hush of the nearby spectators keeps you quiet as you get nearer. Long ropes connecting the boughs of the trees shiver as something moves swiftly across them above you.

Finally, you reach your destination. You join a group of tourists on a wooden viewing platform, gazing noiselessly into the clearing, cameras softly clicking. You turn to see what they are looking at, and there, on a structure surrounding a large tree, are two young orangutans, their copper hair vivid against the jungle green as they feast lazily on a heaving pile of bananas they have just been given.

It’s feeding hour at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, and you have arrived just in time to witness it.


The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is located approximately 25km from Sandakan, Sabah’s second largest city. The centre, one of Malaysian Borneo’s most-loved attractions, was opened in 1964 to rehabilitate rescued baby orangutans who had been orphaned due to illegal logging and hunting. The orangutans at the centre are taught essential survival skills and are released back into the wild when they are ready. Visitors are able to see the orangutans in their natural habitat, and are also able to witness their feeding time twice a day. In 2014, a new section was opened where visitors can watch the younger orangutans learn how to play on climbing frames in their nursery area. And as if that wasn’t enough reason to visit Sepilok, you can also head straight over to the sun bear sanctuary afterwards, which is directly opposite the orangutan centre.

Sun Bears

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre shares staff and veterinary facilities with the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, but the two centres are quite distinct, with the former only opening very recently in 2014. There are currently 36 bears under the protection of the centre, but they are not all let out at once as they are fairly territorial and tend to quarrel over napping spots in the trees. Sun bears are not only the smallest bears in the world, but they are also the best climbers and the second most endangered bear, after the giant panda. They used to be found throughout Asia, but their population has been threatened by deforestation, hunting and pet trading.

They are recognisable by the light-coloured horseshoe shape on their chests, which some say resemble a rising sun. They are adept at extracting honey from beehives due to their extremely long tongues, earning them the nickname ‘honey bears’. You can watch the sunbears from a viewing platform at tree height, and the centre has helpfully supplied a few portable telescopes for those who want to get a close-up view of these lovely creatures. The staff are very helpful and friendly, and will assist you in spotting the bears who pop up in all sorts of unexpected places. The centre’s aim is to rescue the bears and help them to develop the necessary skills for independence in the forest, such as foraging, climbing trees and self-defense. The bears are closely monitored to identify potential candidates for release. However, some bears may be too traumatised for release, so the centre offers them a permanent and protected home instead.

Story by Chris Lim & Charlie Morgan
Photos by The Spacemen

Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre General info
Opening hours: 9am – 12pm, 2pm – 4pm (Saturday – Thursday); 9am – 11am, 2pm – 4pm (Fridays)
Orangutan feeding times: 10am and 3pm. It is recommended to arrive 30 minutes before feeding time.
Entry Costs (Malaysian/ Non-Malaysian nationals):
Adult: RM5.00 / RM30.00
Child: RM2.00 / RM15.00
Camera Cost: RM10.00
Getting there: Many organised tours leave from around Sabah at varying prices. Public bus #14 departs from Sandakan taking approximately 45–60 minutes, costing RM5. The Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan bus can also drop you at junction Jalan Sepilok, around 2.5 km from the Centre. Journey approximately 5 hours from KK. Taxis are usually available outside the centre (RM40.00 to Sandakan).

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre General Info
Opening hours: 9am – 3.30pm
Please note that the Centre does not have feeding time so visitors are welcome to visit at any time the Centre is open. However, sun bears are most active from 9.30am – 3pm.
Entry Costs (Malaysian / Non-Malaysian nationals):
Ages 12-17: RM2 / RM5
Adults (18 and above): RM15 / RM30
Free admission for children below 12 years of age


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