Guaranteed Wildlife in Sepilok, Borneo, Malaysia
Sepilok is a small village in the northeast of Malaysia’s Sabah province, a thirty minute drive from the town (and airport) of Sandakan, and for most travellers the beginning of their Sabah wildlife adventure. Here, the key attractions are the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, the Rainforest Discovery Centre and, a short drive away, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. All four can be visited on an action-packed one night itinerary, or a more leisurely and in-depth two-night stay.
Serious wildlife enthusiasts may have understandable reservations about visiting wildlife sanctuaries. Many so-called sanctuaries around the world are little more than zoos, with more focus on the tourists than the animals, and variable levels of regard for the wellbeing of the animals they are supposed to be protecting. And for photographers, taking photos of animals in a sanctuary always feels a little bit like cheating.
We wrestled with these concerns before including Sepilok in our Borneo itinerary, but after significant research, we felt comfortable with our decision to visit, for the following reasons:
The sanctuaries, especially the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, are well regarded for their work, particularly in rehabilitating orphaned and rescued animals, and where possible, returning them to the wild
Visiting the sanctuaries provides revenue to continue this important work
It is a great opportunity to learn more about the wildlife of Borneo, ensuring you have some knowledge of habitats and behaviours of the animals in the wild before you actually get to the rainforest
In the off-chance that your journey deeper into the jungles doesn’t reward you with any wildlife sightings, you won’t leave Borneo without having seen some of its biggest highlights
And having visited, we have no qualms in recommending a short stay in Sepilok, for exactly these reasons.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
The biggest drawcard in Sepilok, and one of the most popular attractions in all of Sabah, is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC). Founded in 1964, SORC is a large sanctuary that aims to rehabilitate orphaned and injured orangutans before returning them to the wild. The most comprehensive information about the centre can be found at Orangutan Appeal UK - although this is a UK website, it is far more detailed than the official Sabah Wildlife Department government website or the Sabah Tourism site.
The centre is open from 0900 to 1200 and 1400 to 1600 daily (except Fridays when the morning session is 0900 to 1100). Entry is currently 30 MYR (approximately A$10), with an extra 10 MYR to use a camera up to 400mm zoom (prime lenses greater than 400mm are considered “professional use” and are charged at 1000 MYR (approximately A$300!)). Tickets are valid for the entire day.
The orangutan nursery, home to adolescent orangutans in the later stages of rehabilitation, is open throughout the times above. Here, a glass-fronted (and air-conditioned) auditorium lets you view the young orangutans as they practice their climbing and swinging. The best viewings, with the most orangutan activity, are likely earlier in the morning. We suggest heading straight to the nursery once you arrive at the centre, and for keen photographers, position yourself in the front left corner (the area where you need to remove your shoes) for photos that have the least amount of light reflection from the glass.
Feeding times at the outdoor platform are 1000 and 1500 each day. Two rangers arrive and climb onto the feeding platform to leave a range of fruit and sugarcane. Visitors watch from viewing platforms several metres away, and wait with bated breath, as it is no guarantee that orangutans will come – given that the entire focus of the centre is to rehabilitate orangutans so that they return to the surrounding forest and do not rely on artificial feeding, it is likely that only a few orangutans (if any) will visit the feeding platform on a particular session. If you are determined to see orangutans here, outside of the nursery, maximise your chances by including time in your itinerary for two feeding sessions. The afternoon feeding session is generally less crowded than the morning session.
In addition to the nursery and the feeding platform there is an elevated boardwalk that wends its way through the reserve, with the opportunity for seeing more semi-wild orangutans here, in addition to other flora and fauna. There is also an education centre with regular screenings of a documentary about the SORC, a café and a souvenir shop, where, in addition to purchasing the usual memorabilia, you can contribute to the work done at the centre by making a donation or “adopting” an orangutan.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Opposite the entrance to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). It was founded in 2008 with the dual aims of providing care and rehabilitation to rescued sun bears, and to increase awareness of sun bears internationally, and was opened to the public in 2014. Unlike the SORC, the BSBCC has an excellent website, with extensive information about sun bears and the work of the centre.
Sun bears are the world’s smallest bear, and are found only southeast Asia. Their existence is threatened by the same problems as orangutans – habitat destruction from deforestation and poaching for the illegal pet trade, plus the practice of harvesting of their bile for use in traditional Chinese medicine. The BSBCC has been involved in the rescue of 61 sun bears since 2008.
The BSBCC is open daily from 0900 to 1530. Inside, there are a number of elevated walkways that allow viewing of the resident sun bears, and other wildlife such as giant red squirrels and macaques, but no specific feeding times. Entrance fees and camera charges are the same as those for the SORC.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre
The Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok is located 2.1 kilometres from the SORC and BSBCC, and is an environmental education centre designed to introduce visitors to the wonders of the Bornean rainforest. There are numerous well marked trails through the forest, with detailed interpretive signs in both English and Malay, as well as a garden centre, exhibition hall and café. But the highlight is the 347 metre elevated walkway – constructed 25 metres above the forest floor, the walkway is an industrious steel structure of platforms and towers, but its patina of olive paint and lichen means it blends pleasingly into its environment. From here it is possible to see numerous bird species, including Borneo’s iconic hornbills, as well as squirrels, macaques and even occasional orangutans. More information is available on their quaint but informative website - The Rainforest Discovery Centre.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre is open daily from 0800 to 1700, although once inside the canopy walkway and forest trails remain open until 2000. Tickets are 15 MYR (approximately A$5) and there is no fee for cameras. The centre also provides guided night walks from 1800 to 2000, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for independent travellers, although tour groups can book for any night of the week. The night walks begin with a visit to a section of the canopy walkway where giant red flying squirrels are known to launch themselves at dusk (fantastic to watch but almost impossible to photograph!). It then continues through the forest trails, looking for nocturnal animals, such as civets, Western tarsiers, slow lorises, snakes, frogs and spiders. Night walks cost 30 MYR (approximately A$10) per person and are well worth the experience. The centre also offers a taxi service to return guests to lodges in the area after the night walk (with guides doubling as taxi drivers!), as most of the lodges are about a 20 minute walk away.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
The final of the four attractions in the Sepilok region is a little further afield – the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in Labuk Bay, on the coast about 30 minutes drive from the SORC. Here the focus is not rehabilitation, but the cause is no less noble – a local landowner learnt of the plight of the proboscis monkeys in the region, whose habitat was rapidly dwindling due to encroaching palm oil plantations, and instead of developing his own land in this way, preserved the mangrove forest as a sanctuary for the remaining proboscis monkeys. More information can be found at https://www.proboscis.cc/home.html.
Due to habitat destruction, the proboscis monkeys have their diet supplemented by the sanctuary, with fruit and sugar-free pancakes. There are two feeding platforms for different groups of proboscis monkeys, platforms A and B. In the morning, feeding times are 0930 at platform A and 1130 at platform B. In the afternoon, feeding times are 1430 at platform A and 1630 at platform B. It is worth visiting both platforms, as the environment at platform A is more natural, with a setting over a mangrove swamp, while at platform B it is also possible to see a troop of photogenic silver leaf monkeys. Between the feeding times, there is a video that can be watched at platform B, but during our visit, the silver leaf monkey babies were putting on a far more entertaining show, and we happily spent the intervening time just watching them in action.
Entrance to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is 60 MYR (approximately A$20), with the higher fee perhaps a reflection of the fact that this is a private enterprise, with a camera fee of 10 MYR (approximately A$3).
A final word on Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary… It is important for us to mention the experience here is arguably the least natural, and potentially the least beneficial to the animals, of the four sanctuaries in Sepilok. The proboscis monkeys and silver-leaf langurs here are clearly very used to, if not reliant, on the feedings, and are very habituated to the presence of humans. You will almost certainly get your best, closest, photos of the animals at the sanctuary, but you will have no illusions about the contrived nature of the experience.
How To Put it All Together
If you have just one night in Sepilok, it is going to be an action-packed twenty-four hours!
After your morning flight arrives in Sandakan, head to Sepilok and check in to your resort, then go straight to Labuk Bay for the two afternoon feeding sessions at the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. After the 1630 feeding, drive back to Sepilok in time for the guided night walk at the Rainforest Discovery Centre.
The next morning, be at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre for opening at 0900 and once inside, head to the orangutan nursery to see the young orangutans start their day. Be at the feeding platform about 20 minutes before the 1000 feeding session to have a prime vantage point, and then keep your fingers crossed. After feeding time, depart the SORC and cross the road to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and observe the sun bears from the elevated walkways. Then it’s time for lunch and your departure into the jungles of the Kinabatangan River. Whew!
With two nights in Sepilok, the pace is much more relaxed, and there is time to include more of the educational activities, and also second chances if any of the wildlife viewings don’t eventuate.
On your first afternoon, head to the Rainforest Discovery Centre for an enlightening meander along the nature trails and canopy walkway. Stay into the evening for the guided night walk. The following morning, head to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre for the orangutan nursery and morning feeding time, but also take in a screening of the documentary, before your visit to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. In the afternoon, visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary for the two afternoon feeding sessions. If you are keen, you could undertake a second night walk, for another attempt at getting a photo of those giant red flying squirrels, or finding the elusive tarsiers!
And the next morning, you have the option of returning to the SORC or BSBCC if you didn’t get to see orangutans or sun bears, or enjoy a leisurely jungle breakfast at your resort, before you depart for the depths of the jungle, and hopefully many more wildlife encounters in the wild…