Visiting With the People of the Forest
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysian Borneo and catch a firsthand glimpse of the work that it does. My visit was not a behind-the-scenes look, but rather one seen through the eyes of a regular tourist. I was happy to find that the center is focused on the welfare of the animals in the center’s care and not on the demands of the human visitors.
Set on more than 4,000 hectares of protected rainforest, the center is run by the Sabah Wildlife Department. It was created to rehabilitate orphaned baby orangutans and has evolved to include public education among its activities.
Make no mistake: Your visit to Sepilok is strictly on the orangutan’s terms—and so it should be. The only section of the center that the general public has access to is the feeding station, which is part of the last “stage” of rehabilitation, when orangutans roam in the rainforest surrounding the center and choose to return to the feeding platform for supplementary feeding when needed. Yes, the feeding is done at set times, but there is no guarantee that the orangutans will go to the platform at 10 a.m. on the dot or, indeed, that they will go at all! If you are hoping to see a show or pet an orangutan, then think again, as these animals are encouraged to avoid human contact and live as independently as possible.
The best photo opportunity will come as these graceful apes swing along ropes and through trees to the platform. When they reach the platform, which is scattered with unpeeled fruit, they will most likely turn their backs firmly to their audience and get down to what they came for—eating, not socializing!
Orangutans are an endangered species and are threatened with extinction, thanks to human activities such as deforestation and the illegal pet trade. Despite this, orangutans are still exploited in cruel acts and forced to perform for television. If you love orangutans, then remember that they are not here for our entertainment, but that they are in fact our closest living relatives, sharing 96.4 percent of our genetic makeup, and that they deserve our respect and protection.