In 1963 orang-utans became officially protected in Sabah under the Fauna Conservation Ordinance, which, among other things, prohibits hunting, trading or keeping them as pets. Young orang-utans being kept locally as pets, then needed rescuing and the idea grew of rehabilitating these animals to fend for themselves so that they might re-adapt to life in the wild.
In 1964 43km² of jungle rainforest was set aside and the Sepilok Rehabilitation centre was established to rehabilitate orang-utans for reintegration into the wild. Today around 80 orang-utan are living free in the reserve and there are about 25 juveniles and babies living in the nurseries at the center’s buildings.
We have visited and been supporters of the centre for a number of years during which time we have heard conflicting opinions from people that have visited; some likening it to a circus or zoo, saying that it is too touristy. We couldn’t disagree more. If you’re going there expecting to see wild orang utan swinging from trees, forget it. Those that have been living in the reserve for a long time don’t come to the platform for feeding, they are not seen by the tourists, they have been rehabilitated.
What you see are those that are in the last stage of rehabilitation. They have been released but are either a little lazy or still a bit timid to find their own food, so they return to the platform for an easy snack. The food supplied by the centre is purposefully designed to be monotonous and boring so as to encourage the apes to start to forage for themselves. Most animals eventually achieve total independence and become integrated into Sepilok’s wild orang utan population. To avoid overcrowding the forest, some are relocated to Tabin Wildlife Reserve, an area of virgin rainforest twice the size of Singapore.
For our school, university and gap year groups we organise service trips to Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, where participants get to help out with some daily chores and general maintenance.