Sepilok Orangutan Nursery
We were still giddy from seeing the wild Orangutans that morning. After returning to the gorgeous Sepilok Nature Resort, we had lunch and a short break before we headed to the Sepilok Orangutan Nursery and Rehabilitation Centre.
The Orangutan Nursery and Rehabilitation Centre houses orphaned and stolen baby orangutans. Many of the little orangutans were originally pet orangutans that had been illegally kept as pets; some were orphaned babies whose Mothers had died or been killed. They were all babies or between 1-2 years old.
Stolen and Orphaned Orangutan Babies
The video we watched before going into the nursery would make anyone get a bit teary. People who steal an orphan orangutan often chain them up, tease them, and/or have them “perform” for tourists. These babies kept in captivity often become sick and/or they had been neglected to the point of cruelty. It breaks your heart to watch the videos of these baby orangutans. They are so much like our own babies, and being abused in such sad ways.
Some of the orangutans raised as pets can never be returned to the wild, while others can be rehabilitated, but it is a long and expensive process, taking up to seven years. This rehabilitation center, and others, take on this responsibility without the least hesitation.
The Rehabilitation Centre has staff that routinely go out to confiscate these illegally kept baby orangutans. Often the babies were snatched during logging activities in the forest, or caught by poachers who actually kill the adult orangutans to capture the babies. The Malaysian government has outlawed this practice and has made it illegal to trade or capture young orangutans. People who are caught keeping an orphan orangutan as a pet face prison sentences, yet it is still a fairly common practice.
The Centre has also rehabilitated other orphaned animals such as Sun Bears, gibbons, Sumatran rhinos and elephants.
Before entering the nursery, we were required to sanitize our hands. We were not allowed to bring in bags or purses – only a camera, and given strict instructions to be very silent. The nursery’s mandate is to educate locals and visitors in such a way that they do not interfere with the rehabilitation process. To that end visitors are not allowed to touch the babies and toddlers or even come close.
While we were walking into the nursery grounds along the boardwalk through the jungle, a medium-sized male orphan orangutan was walking toward us along the wood railing. As I tried to take photos, I became annoyed that our guide, David, kept standing in front of me. No matter how I twisted from one side to the other, he still blocked my view and any possibility of taking a photo.
Finally, David said,
“That fellow is Churios. He is very mischievous and cheeky! Stay back!”
A staff member of the Orangutan Nursery followed Churios closely, watching his every move.
David continued to explain,
“Churios has ripped off the clothes of several female tourists; one Japanese girl was stripped – naked!”
Holy crap! That poor girl must have been mortified! Now I stayed cautiously behind David, peeking out only to snap a quick photo.
David continued to walk in front and to the side of me while Churios continued walking down the railing and was now even with us.
It makes one wonder what goes on in the mind of an Orangutan. They are amazingly human-like. Did we evolve from these animals, or other primates? There are certainly some human males who behave in a similar way.
Orangutan Day Care
Learning to Climb
Once in the Nursery grounds, it was a surprise to discover that the staff must teach the baby and toddler orangutans how to climb. The little orangutans simply wanted to walk around on the ground, but the staff would have to lift them up to the trees and vines and climbing apparatus to teach them how to climb. Just as their Orangutan Mothers would have done, the staff must teach the orphaned orangutans that it is dangerous to stay on the ground where predators could easily capture them.
Climbing is the most important skill a young orphan orangutan must learn. In the wild these babies stay with their mothers for up to six years while they are taught the skills they need to survive in the forest. At Sepilok a younger orangutan will be paired up with an older one to help them to develop the skills they need. It was fun watching this older one encourage the younger one to climb.
The baby orangutans were also taught by colour what berries they could safely eat so that they would be prepared when they were eventually released into the wild.
Free to Leave
The monkeys have the freedom to go off into the jungle where they have 43 square kilometres of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. They can go into the forest whenever they want, but they always return to the nursery centre for food.
The orphans have their diet supplemented by daily feedings of milk and bananas. This food is purposefully designed to be monotonous and boring to encourage each orphan orangutan to start to forage for themselves in the jungle.
Just like a human baby, the baby orangutans have 24 hour care. As they grow older they join the toddlers in the nursery, but at night they are all housed indoors for safety.
Some of the young orangutans create strong bonds. There were two young males about two-three years old that were absolutely inseparable; they were always hugging, touching and walking together as they walked along the railing. The staff respected their relationship.
An Awesome Experience
Seeing the baby orangutans is much like being at a human day care. The little ones are scampering all over the place. Some are getting into trouble, some are running and jumping and swinging. Others are sitting alone, some are being soothed. Some are being fed, some are being corrected or taught how to behave appropriately.
The Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre charges 30RM ($9CAD) for foreign tourists, plus a camera fee of RM10, should you insist on bringing in a camera. These fees plus the funding from the Sabah Wildlife Department of Borneo and a UK Orangutan Appeal fund, support the centre which is currently lacking in funds to keep up equipment and staffing.
Watching the orphaned and baby orangutans was an experience that few are fortunate enough to see first-hand. It was an exposure of vulnerability and intimacy that will be forever etched in our minds.
The Sepilok Orangutan Nursery was set up by an Englishwoman called Barbara Harrison in 1964 and was the first centre in the world to dedicate itself to the rehabilitation of orphaned orangutans. Click on the link for more information about the Sepilok Orangutan Nursery and Rehabilitation Centre.