Where to see wild orangutans in Malaysia
Malaysia, along with Indonesia, is the only place in the world where one can witness orangutans in the wild. These solitary but social simians are the only great apes which are unique to Asia. Orangutans mostly feed on fruit, but also eat leaves, shoots and other vegetation and the occasional insect, egg or small vertebrate.
The name “orangutan” comes from the Malay words “orang” meaning person and “hutan” meaning forest. The forest is the orangutan’s home and the best place to observe these gentle, highly intelligent primates. In order to see orangutans it is therefore recommended you visit Malaysia’s national parks or nature reserves. You can alternatively visit, or even volunteer at, a rehabilitation center or animal park that houses orangs, but this article will focus on where to observe them in the wild.
Below is a list of places to see wild orangutans in Malaysia followed by a short explanation of sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers where orangutans can be observed up close, but in captivity. You will notice that every location is situated in Malaysian Borneo, and all the orangs you will see are therefore Bornean orangutans, a species which is further divided into three subspecies, named according to their geographic locations on the island: the Northeast, Northwest and Central (only in Indonesia). It is estimated that there are about 41,000 Bornean orangutans living today and 7,100 Sumatran orangutans.
Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Sabah State, is probably the easiest place to see orangutans in the wild. The sanctuary is relatively small and orangs can be seen from boat tours on the Kinabatangan River, along with pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, macaques, silver leaf monkeys, civets, crocodiles, wild boars, otters and a dizzying array of bird life. The sanctuary is accessible by a two hour boat trip or a car or bus trip over rugged palm plantation roads, followed by a short boat ride to the resort. Accommodation includes resort style rainforest lodges and less expensive options such as a rest house, bed and breakfast, homestays and jungle camps for the more adventurous traveller.
Male orangutan, Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Pic: Paulo Philippidis (Flickr CC).
Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah State is a large (around 1200 sq km) reserve of lowland rainforest. Tabin became a reserve in 1984 due to the large amount of animals (some endangered) residing in the forest. Besides orangutans, the reserve is home to proboscis monkeys and other primates, Bornean elephants, Sumatran rhinos, Sunda clouded leopards, munjac deer, mouse deer and sambar deer, as well as wild cattle known as tembadau. Tabin also features natural geothermal mud volcanoes, which attract animals in search of salt. The mud volcanoes provide great opportunities for spotting wildlife.
Danum Valley Conservation Area, also in Sabah State, is regarded by some as the best place to see orangutans in pristine forests surroundings. This 400sq km rainforest reserve is also a good place to avoid crowds and has one of the richest concentrations of wildlife in Malaysia, which can be observed by exploring its extensive network of trails. Besides orangutans, Danum Valley is home to Bornean gibbons, red leaf monkeys, deer and of course many local birds. Night walks also give the opportunity to see leopard cats, giant flying squirrels and small nocturnal primates like the slow loris and western tarsier. Accommodation ranges from spartan bungalows for more DIY adventures at the Danum Valley Conservation Area or luxurious stays at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
Wild mother and baby orangutans. Pic: karma-police (Flickr CC).
Batang Ai National Park in Sarawak State, though not very large at 24 sq km, is the biggest transnational protected area for tropical rainforest conservation. It lies at the intersection of Malaysia’s Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary and Indonesia’s Bentuang-Karimun National Park, which together make up a whopping 10,000 sq km. This lowland rainforest reserve has the highest orangutan population density (1.7 per km) and is home to an estimated 1,000 orangs, though sightings are not guaranteed. Other primates in the park include Bornean gibbons, white-fronted and maroon langurs, long tailed and pig-tailed macaques, nocturnal western tarsier and slow loris. Additional mammal species in Batang Ai include clouded leopards, civets, bearded pigs, sun bears, barking, sambar and mouse deer, martens, weasels, otters, porcupines, giant flying squirrels and tree shrews.
Another option for seeing orangutans in Malaysia is at wildlife parks, rehabilitation centers or sanctuaries. The original and main sanctuary is Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, located within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, about 25 kilometers from the city of Sandakan in Sabah State. Sepilok opened in 1964 as a refuge for baby orangutans orphaned due to illegal hunting, the pet trade, logging, and palm and paper plantations. It is home to between 60 and 80 orangutans. Visitors can witness the feeding of the orangutans and come quite close to these amazing creatures at the sanctuary.
Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. Pic: Rob and Stephanie Levy (Flickr CC).