Sepilok Nature Preserve

I have had the most amazing two days in the Sepilok nature preserve just outside of Sandakan.

Sepilok is a major tourist draw for the orangutan rehabilitation center there, where orphaned apes are retrained to survive in the wild. The apes here are considered semi-wild, meaning that they have the 4300 hectare preserve to roam, but the center does set out food for them twice a day to supplement their foraging…and visitors can come watch them eat. My first trip to the viewing platform (about 30ft from the feeding platform, which has ropes leading to it from several directions out of the forest) I got to see 5 young orangutans come to feast.

A male orangutan will stay with its mother for ~6 years, and a female until she is a teen, learning about child care and helping to raise siblings. This is reported to be the longest childhood in the animal kingdom (after humans, of course). Here are the five orangutans swinging away after the meal- the acrobatics they perform and the positions they hang in are ridiculous!

Long- and pig-tailed macaques show up afterwards to finish the fruit.

The afternoon feeding was even better: 8 orangutans! Two were the larger males at the the center, and you could tell their dominance by the way some of the other apes fled to wait up a safe and distant rope as soon as these two appeared.

They were in command of the platform, and got the choice watermelon. At the end of the feeding, the human workers brought out a bucket with what looked like milk, and poured it into a large tray for the apes to share. One lucky ape asked for and received the bucket to drink from, sticking his head in deep with his rump in the air. A jealous buddy took the bucket next, trying to pour the last remaining drops into his mouth. All the apes hung around for an hour in the trees surrounding the viewing platform, and we got to see some playing and wrestling while hanging upside down.


The next day, I called up the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center and asked if I could come visit, mentioning a friend of mine from Lewis and Clark and the Australia trip, Jocelyn Stokes. Jocelyn has been working with the BSBCC and helping their efforts (in fact she’s coming back to Borneo later this month to spend a year researching bears!), and got me interested in the facility. This center isn’t open to the public yet, but are fundraising to get their facilities open ( you can help them out at They were very friendly and kindly offered to give me a view as a friend of a volunteer.

Gloria, a BSBCC member and fellow biologist who did her masters on bird population survival in secondary rainforests before joining the sun bear movement, met me to take me into the private facility. Before she arrived, I saw my first wild rhinocerous hornbill fly through the forest and perch on a tree. They are huge! I knew then it was going to be a great day, and I hadn’t even seen bears yet! Some of the pics I’ll share are from the BSBCC Facebook

The BSBCC currently cares for 28 bears, many of which were rescued from lives as illegally kept pets. They are working with the bears to rehabilitate them back into semi-wild forest living, developing natural behaviors including foraging and digging, climbing and nesting. We walked up to the viewing platform overlooking a portion of the forest in which the sub-adults (2-3 years) start to independently explore. Right there, standing on her back legs looking up at us was a sunbear! These smallest of bears have a distinctive yellow U on their chests- like a fingerprint, these are different for each individual. She showed off her tree climbing skills for us, scrambling nimbly up the trunk to tear off bark with her long curved claws, then sliding down as easily as a fireman down a pole.


She was soon joined by two other females, snuffling about on the forest floor, and they were provided with a lunch of fruits, thrown and scattered in the forest to encourage foraging. As we stood and watched, no fewer than 6 sub-adults (5 females and 1 male) wandered by! Gloria explained that some of the bears show excellent progress and rerelease potential, but some have been too exposed to human life and are too trusting of people to go back to the wild.

One subadult we saw had been the pet of a little girl, allowed into bed and cuddled. I can understand why you want to just pick one up and cuddle it (they are so fluffy), but mostly I’m in disbelief that people try to keep wild animals as pets. In the forest next to the sub-adults, a mature male bear also made an appearance.

Sadly, he is not a candidate for release as he spent too long with humans and doesn’t know how to climb, but it offered a chance to see a full grown bear. After foraging for dinner, all the young bears ascended into trees for a nap. There was play fighting as four youngsters tried to be in the same tree, with the bear in the middle trapped with no place to go, up or down. Eventually, with much growling and barking, they worked out their proper positions.

It was awesome to get to see these creatures, and learn about the efforts to save them from the dangers of deforestation and human desire to own them. Gloria and the other BSBCC members taught me a lot.

The efforts of the BSBCC and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Center made me think about the double edged sword of tourism in a place like Malaysia. It provides a great chance for education and lets people see and become interested in an animal that they otherwise wouldn’t get to, and contributes money to the cause of preservation and conservation of biodiversity (money to combat the big money involved in palm oil plantation farming leading to deforestation). But with an influx of tourism comes a rise in animal exploitation for money. Anything that can make a buck. Some places are for profit, not for animal preservation – I felt that way about Jong’s Crocodile Farm in Kuching (I didn’t go to it because of that). And the advertising for these preserves is relentless, parking lots packed with tour buses. Even the Sepilok Orangutan center charges for bringing a camera. What’s the best way to educate but not treat the animals as a cash cow? I think the groups in Sepilok are trying, by limiting exposure of the animals, and using the large natural forest preserve to keep the semi-wild behavior. And the folks I met certainly care about their mission.

But a related challenge is involving the locals in preservation efforts- the money from tourism comes largely from outside Malaysia. Gloria told me that many locals don’t know there are laws prohibiting hunting and keeping of bears and orangutans- a goal of the center is local education on why species should be protected. But looking around, jobs and money are probably pretty scarce and largely in service or industry- tour bus driver or maybe guide, food services and hospitality, small shop owner, mechanic, palm oil farmer. A good crop of palm oil would bring the most money, and with it security and ability to feed your family. Survival of the sun bears is probably far from your mind.

I don’t have an answer. I’m not trying to survive and raise a family in Malaysia, I am privileged to be here on a vacation. For my part, I tried to put my money behind the responsible conservation groups. But other options are cheaper, and that’s a huge deciding factor for many visitors. I cannot just think, “Well, I saw sun bears- cross that off the list and never think about it again. So what if they are fated to extinction- I got my satisfaction.” I want the opportunity to continue to exist for others, or even better, the chance for an encounter in the wild forests of Borneo.

How do you balance preservation and survival in a country where the two major contributors to GDP and the livelihood of the people (tourism and oil) are in such conflict? How do we save the earth we need for the future while so many struggle to survive in the now?


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