The retreat or flight of the Man of the Forest or orang-utan, due to its diminishing natural habitat, had given rise to the establishment of retreats or sanctuaries, such as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah, for these gentle and intelligent great apes. Conservation places like the 4,300-hectare virgin equatorial rainforest reserve, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, located 25 kilometres from Sandakan, Sabah on the island of Borneo, provided a second chance for the orang-utans at leading a natural, independent life in the wild.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, set up in 1964 under the Wildlife Department of Sabah, was considered one of the largest and oldest rehabilitation centres in the world, and served as a refuge for orphaned, injured and captured orang-utans. At the Sepilok centre, orang-utans were trained to develop the necessary skills, in a safe environment; especially those that were caught and later kept as pets; on how to survive and thrive eventually on their own in the jungle; and thus far, close to 100 orang-utans have been brought in for rehabilitation at the centre with a success rate of 75% being returned to the jungle.
Traveling to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre took a 20-minute drive from city of Sandakan, Sabah, and I was excited to see the reddish-brown great apes up close and in action. The best times to visit the Sepilok centre were during the orang-utan feeding times, which occur daily around 10.00am in the morning and 3.00pm in the afternoon; and I decided to catch the morning feed. The early bird catches the worm; or in this case, I caught a close-up view of the orang-utans; who in turn would catch the bananas or sweet potatoes or sugar canes and milk, that comprised the diet of fruits or food provided by the centre.
The admission ticket costs RM5.00 for Malaysian, like me, and RM30.00 for non-Malaysians; but each ticket could be used for a maximum of two visits on the same day; so I could go out of the centre and back again for the afternoon feed if I wanted to without having to pay again. Oh, I almost forgot to mention, if you wanted to take photos or videos, whether using your camera or camcorder or the camera in your mobile phone, there was an additional charge of RM10.00, which most people would pay, including me because I definitely wanted to encapsulate these semi-wild great apes interacting with each other, and the rangers of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, on the feeding platform.
There were quite a crowd gathered, mostly overseas tourists or visitors, at the viewing gallery of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which resembled a big balcony, accessible by a broad walk, to watch the orang-utans taking food or eating on the feeding platform. There was an unexpected hush in the air as the morning feeding time drew nearer. I could see short and long-tailed macaques (monkeys), some on the platform, others at nearby trees, sitting on branches, patiently waiting for their turns at the food. Shortly afterwards, I saw swinging gracefully and seemingly without effort on long limbs, left to right, right to left, along the ropes strung from trees to the platform, a couple of young orang-utans.
Following the appearance of these orang-utans, right on time, two male rangers of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, climbed the steps to the platform holding buckets containing bananas, and began distributing the fruits to the orang-utans, some even taking the bananas delicately from the staff’s hand. It was a surreal moment, knowing in my mind that a full grown male orang-utan could weigh over 200 pounds and could literally pound me to the ground with its powerful arms, yet here they were, shy and gentle giants in the flesh. More orang-utans had slowly emerged from the surrounding forest, a few adult-sized apes and females with newborn babies cradled protectively by their sides.
Orang-utan were the only species of great apes found in Asia, particularly in Borneo and Sumatra; and they shared 96.4% of DNA with humans, so were very humanlike; hence the reason why they were referred to as “Man of the Forest”, as translated from the word “orang-utan”, by the local people. Viewers were restricted to the walkways and not encouraged to approach, touch or play with the orang-utans, as the more mischievous ones who had become familiar with the presence of people, could reach out and grab your camera or hat; and in a wrestling contest that would ensue, I would put my money on the ape.
After the feeding session, with the last morsel having been consumed by the macaques, I headed over to the Visitor Centre at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, to watch a short video about the centre, its philosophy and background as well as the work done by the rangers at Sepilok, and the various conservation projects, and research and assistance rendered to other endangered species such as the rhinoceros.
Besides the antics of the great apes and monkeys, there were jungle trials for those interested to try, where you could check out the varied wildlife at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, from hornbills to tortoises, snakes, lizards, spiders, insects; and the diverse tropical plant life, from pitcher plants to ferns, wild orchids, and other flowering plants; but I did not go on any due to time constraints.
On the way back from Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre to the city of Sandakan, Sabah, the thought running through my mind was that my first close encounter with the orang-utans today, who were deemed to be our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, was an eye-opening and humbling experience; and I was thankful that they were given a second chance at life at the Sepilok sanctuary.