Where to See Orangutans in Asia
Of all Asia’s endangered animal species, the orangutan is perhaps the one that we humans feel most affinity with. Like us, it’s a great ape. It’s highly intelligent, shy and peaceful, and in its soulful eyes we see something of ourselves.
Orangutans cannot survive in the wild without the rainforests. They eat mainly fruit and spend most of their time in trees rather than on the ground. The name orangutan means ‘person of the forest’ in the Malay language. They are found today in only two places: Borneo and North Sumatra in Indonesia. As loggers, farmers, palm oil producers and others continue to clear the forests, orangutan numbers keep declining.
The World Wide Fund for Nature puts the number of surviving orangutans in Borneo at just over 100,000. Other conservationists believe the figure is even lower. The orangutans in North Sumatra (two species, differing slightly from those in Borneo) are estimated to number between 8 and 15 thousand. Overall their numbers are believed to be declining by 1,000 or more a year.
Seeing orangutans in the wild, or in forest rehabilitation centres, is a rare and exciting treat. However, senior travellers who want to see them may be put off by the physical effort involved in getting there. There are relatively easy options available, though, as well as more challenging ones. Here are a few:
In Malaysian Borneo, a good option is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre near Sandakan in eastern Sabah. It opened in 1964, and is believed to have been the first centre in the world to rehabilitate orphaned orangutans and return them to the wild. The younger orangutans live in nurseries while the older ones roam freely in the forest reserve. Visitors can watch them eat and move about but are restricted to walkways and are not allowed to touch or approach them.
The centre can be crowded at times and the interests of the young orangutans always come first. To reach Sandakan you can make a five-hour bus journey from Kota Kinabalu across northern Borneo. But it’s far easier to fly, which takes about 45 minutes. From Sandakan it’s a 25 kilometre bus or taxi ride to Sepilok; a visit makes for an easy day or half-day trip.
The Semenggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, also in Borneo, is another excellent place to see orangutans without having to make a long trek through the forest. You can visit the centre on a half-day outing from the state capital, Kuching. The trip includes a short walk through rainforest but nothing too taxing.
The sanctuary cares for orangutans that have been injured in the wild or rescued from captivity. Its main goal is to return them to the wild when they are considered ready. You can watch the orangutans feeding or join a tour with a ranger to look for them in the trees.
If you want to see orangutans in the wild, boat cruises along the Kinabatangan River south of Sandakan are a good bet. The Kinabatangan area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2006 to try to curb the loss of habitat of orangutans and other wild species. The Kinabatangan River runs through this area, and boat cruises along it offer the best chance of seeing wild orangutans – although sightings are not guaranteed.
From Sandakan, you travel to the small town of Sukau, by either river or road. In or near the town are several inexpensive lodges, which provide wildlife-viewing cruises on the river. Inevitably you’ll be roughing it more here than on visits to Sepilok or Semenggoh.
The Danum Valley in eastern Sabah offers visitors the chance to see orangutans in the wild as well as enjoy a jungle experience. The huge forest became a protected area before deforestation could begin and has changed little in centuries. It’s one of the few remaining strongholds of wild orangutans.
Visitors can stay in a hostel or rest house at the Danum Valley Research Centre, where many scientists work, or at the nearby Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Guided walks are available. The easiest way to reach Danum Valley is to fly to Lahad Datu on the southeast coast of Sabah, and drive from there to the valley, a journey of about 80 kilometres.
Tanjung Puting National Park lies in southern Borneo in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan. It’s believed to have the largest wild orangutan population in the world and includes the famous Camp Leakey, an orangutan research centre. But the park is not easy to reach, and older travellers may need to decide whether they have the stamina.
The nearest airport is in the city of Pangkalan Bun, from where you take two boats rides lasting a total of more than four hours to reach the park. Visitors can stay in Pangkalan Bun and make a day trip to visit the park and camp, or stay at the Rimba Ecolodge in the park. You cannot stay overnight at the camp.
A centre at Gunung Leuser National Park in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province offers opportunities to see the Sumatran orangutan. It can be reached by flying to Indonesia’s fourth-largest city, Medan, and travelling by car or bus from there to the park’s Bukit Lawang entrance. Because of its proximity to the city, the centre can be crowded at times, particularly at weekends. It no longer rehabilitates and returns orangutans to the wild but many of them live in the area.
You can see orangutans at feeding times or in the nearby forest. You can also go trekking with a guide in the park and, if you’re lucky, see wild orangutans. There have been complaints, though, of guides feeding semi-wild orangutans to ensure visitors get a sighting. Bukit Lawang town has a range of hotels.
Of all these places, Sepilok and Semenggoh offer the least arduous way to see orangutans in a forest environment, with easy day trips from Sandakan and Kuching respectively. The other options require more travel by road or river, and varying degrees of physical challenge. Older travellers can decide what option suits them best.
Header image: Jorge Guillen