Seeing orangutans in their natural habitat is a major bucket list item for many gap year travellers, and many head to Borneo and Indonesia specifically for a bit of wild orangutan spotting, but not every opertor is ethical. If you want to view orangutans in the wild then it is essential to do so in a responsible and ethical way, and Semenggoh orangutan rehabilitation centre is set up to do just that.
Orangutans are one of the most charismatic, loveable and anthropomorphic members of the animal kingdom, and many travellers head to Borneo with the sole aim of seeing them ‘in their natural habitat’. A term that often causes far more harm than good. This stampede of eager, camera wielding tourists doesn’t always do our primate cousins many favours and it is very easy to fall into an unethical, greenwashed trap, but there are some responsible and ethical ways to visit these enigmatic and likeable animals on your trip.
I love orangutans. They are without doubt one of my absolute favourite animals, (I say one of because as an animal lover I really can’t pick just one!) So when I arrived in Borneo I made it my absolute mission to see them and if I could, try to support in some small way the efforts to aid their care and conservation.
The big thing was, I was determined not to follow the package tourist mentality of ‘seeing them in their natural habitat’. A ridiculous overused phrase which is quite often a prefix to irresponsible safaris and tours that take package tourists far too close to habitats where they have no business being.
I’d seen orangutans before of course, in responsible zoos such as Chester Zoo back home and much more recently in the wonderful Singapore Zoo where they are allowed to roam in a free ranging enclosure, to name just two places, but in Borneo I would get to see them again. I had done as much research as I could, looked into the issues and alternative options, and this time I would hopefully get to see them in a rehabilitation centre that was helping at least some of them return to their natural habitat and caring for those that never could in an ethical way.
Wild orangutans live exclusively in Borneo and Indonesia, which is where each of the two species get their names. Unfortunately orangutans are endangered in the wild, the Sumatran species critically so according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). This is due primarily to habitat loss thanks to illegal deforestation from the logging and palm oil industries, not to mention inhumane shootings of wild animals who come onto palm oil plantations, illegal hunting and the capture of baby orangutans for exploitation in the irresponsible tourism or petting industries.
Put simply it is mankind’s inhumanity that is leading to the rapid extinction of the entire orangutan species.
However thanks to responsible zoos, international breeding programmes and conservation education, and of course rehabilitation centres like Semenggoh, orangutans still have a chance.
The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.
The Semenggoh wildlife centre is part of the Semenggoh Nature Reserve and has been around since 1975, and was established with three aims; first to rescue, care for and if at all possible rehabilitate endangered wildlife back into the wild, to conduct research on endangered species and captive breeding programmes, and finally to educate the general public on wildlife conservation.
The centre looks after a huge variety of animals under it’s care, but it is the orangutan rehabilitation programme which has been the most recognised and the most successful. Since opening they have rescued and cared for countless orangutans, and alongside a neighbouring nature reserve in Matang, have successfully rehabilitated large numbers of them fully back into the wild. To the point that there have been wild baby orangutans born to and reared by rehabilitated
It is an absolute testament to the success of the programme at Semenggoh that it has transferred the rehabilitation process itself to it’s neighbouring facility in Matang and instead concentrates on managing the orangutan population already there. Newly rehabilitated orangutans are now released into Kubah national park instead.
Based just a short distance from Kuching in Sarawak, the centre is unbelievably easy to get to. There is frequent public transport from the centre of Kuching to and from a stop just outside the main gate of the centre itself and it is very cheap. The most expensive option (but still relatively reasonable) is to take a taxi, or any hostel or hotel in Kuching will arrange easy half day trips usually at a better price than the taxi. These half day trips are often extremely reasonably priced, with a mini bus – sometimes with other travellers – that will pick you up and drop you back off at your accommodation at designated times, so you won’t be breaking the bank if you decide you don’t want to use the public transport.
To be perfectly honest there really isn’t all that much difference in the options, as either way the rehabilitation centre restricts visiting times to twice a day, between 9 and 10 in the morning, and 3 and 3.30 in the afternoon. So it is just a matter of how much comfort and convenience you want.
The Staging Process.
These feeding times are part of the necessary staging process of rehabilitation for the orangutans.
When sick, injured or orphaned orangutans are taken under the care of the rehabilitation centres and they are given full check ups and veterinary care for as long as they need it. They are kept in cages at this initial stage out of necessity, but are not allowed to be viewed by tourists or travellers. This stage is all about immediate and acute care.
The second stage is where the rehabilitation starts. Many orangutans are so mentally or physically traumatised in a variety of ways when they are taken in by the rehabilitation centres that there is no way they could ever survive in the wild. This is why they are taken daily to an enclosed area of the forest and essentially ‘taught’ how to be orangutans again. They are shown how to survive in the wild, allowed to swing on trees and look for food. Orangutans at this stage still have a large safety net of care that is provided for them, but just like best practice in human medical care, a strong emphasis is put on empowerment, independence and as little human interaction as possible. If the orangutans can do things for themselves, they are allowed to. If they can’t quite manage, then they are given just enough support to be able to do so.
This process can be a long and arduous process, sometimes taking up to three or four years or even more, but eventually orangutans are given much more freedom in the third stage where they are ‘released’ into the surrounding forest reserve when they can fend for themselves. The orangutans aren’t just left without any help at this stage though. They do spend most of their time ‘in the wild’, but to ensure that they are properly nourished, there is a feeding area where food is placed out for them twice a day.
This gives the organutans the option to live in a large protected environment where they can be as wild as they choose to be, but still gives those who can’t quite manage yet a safety net of being able to find a good source of food, and this feeding area is where tourists and travellers are allowed to view the orangutans at feeding times.
The orangutans don’t always show up at the feeding areas, and those that do won’t necessarily be all of the animals in the area. If they have managed to forage enough food for themselves in the wild – which happens frequently in the fruit season – or don’t feel the need to come down, they won’t. The best thing about Semenggoh is that there is absolutely no pressure for them to do so or staged touristy ‘shows’ that force them to perform for the tourists pleasure.
The final stage is of course the orangutans being completely rehabilitated and able to fend for themselves in the wild, and this is where the orangutans are free to roam in the larger forested area of the reserve, and frankly where they should be allowed to live in peace away from the terrors of deforestation or lumbering hordes of tour groups looking to spot an orangutan ‘in the wild’.
Seeing Orangutans, But Not ‘In The Wild’.
I was told in no uncertain terms before I went to Semmengoh that there was no guarantee that I would see any, which in my mind wasn’t a bad thing. So I decided to take a minibus from my hotel down to the main gate for the early feeding time, as I figured that I could always get a local bus back to the centre in the afternoon if I didn’t see any orangutans for this feeding slot. Getting dropped off at the main gate there was a short, easy walk through the centre to the viewing platform.
There were other tourists arriving at the same time as me in mini buses from Kuching, but I was pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t all that many. I was partly expecting, dreading really, that there would be hordes of camera wielding tourists, but there were a dozen – fifteen at most – other people there.
Stopped by a man who I assumed to be in charge given his khaki shirt and rather manly Magnum P.I esque moustache, the visitors were gathered together and given a little talk on the conservation efforts the facility was making, on the orangutans themselves, and finally on the rules and regulations each and every one of us were expected to follow. Be quiet, no smoking, do not feed or touch the orangutans, the list was extensive but overall common sense, and he gave a look that suggested if anyone pointed a selfie stick at an orangutan they would regret it. I found myself liking the rather stern staff member for insisting on these rules.
At the end of the stern talk he cracked a huge uncharacteristic grin, told us to enjoy the feeding time and stated again that we may not see any orangutans today. He said the orangutans may or may not come down, it’s up to them.
Up to them.
That is exactly the way it is supposed to be. This wasn’t some exploitative wildlife show put on for the amusement of tourists, this was a genuine, ethical viewing experience. I hurried to the viewing platform, eager to catch a glimpse of one of my favourite animals alongside the rest of the gathered tourists, and waited patiently for them to show up.
None did. At first.
For a few minutes I had a feeling that none would turn up, but then hushed gasps of glee and amazement could be heard through the group as spots of ginger fur were spotted through the leaves. Slowly but surely a lone orangutan emerged from the forest to check out the scene before him. You could have heard a pin drop in the group. Seconds later more ginger appendages appeared through the sights and sounds of bending and cracking branches, and eventually we were surrounded by a whole bunch of orangutans of all ages and sizes, some lazing around in the trees, others dropping down onto the platforms to pick at the food that had been left for them and others still doing what comes naturally to all guys, no matter the species.
It was a truly amazing experience, a real bucket list item, all the superlative stereotypes rolled into one.
I was seeing semi wild orangutans doing what they do best, in their own environment. Protected. Cared for. These aren’t completely wild orangutans ‘in their natural habitat’, but they are as close as you should get when travelling responsibly and ethically.
I wasn’t tramping through their natural environment and disturbing them just to get a perfect selfie. I wasn’t contributing to some horrible package tourist group with a tour guide pushing us too close to the animals and interrupting their feeding, mating or migratory patterns, and I certainly wasn’t putting my needs as a traveller before theirs.
This was real responsible wildlife tourism.
Supporting Rehabilition Centres.
It makes me truly angry that these rehabilitation centres are needed at all, but they are. The truth is they perform a vital role in the orangutan’s survival as a species.
All across Borneo vast tracts of the orangutans habitat is being systematically destroyed by illegal deforestation and palm oil plantations. In some parts of Sabah especially the rainforest is almost all but destroyed. The wildlife is being driven further and further into increasingly small parcels of land, and even those are at risk from yearly premeditated forest fires and the haze and illegal hunting and capture.
It’s as if mankind is doing everything in its power to purposely wipe the species off the face of the planet for good.
But by visiting Semenggoh and other genuine rehabilitation centres in Borneo, you are supporting projects that are working tirelessly to help save the orangutans and their habitats. This is how responsible tourism can have a real, tangible benefit and how you as a traveller can help save some of the wildlife you have travelled half way around the world to see.
So I urge you all if you want to see orangutans ‘in the wild’, then visit Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and give them your support.
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