We returned to the Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary outside Sandakan today, and were privileged to be allowed into the rehabilitation area and the nursery, to watch these orphaned animals being taught the ropes – literally. With orang-utans set to become extinct within 10 years – if circumstances remain as they are – their plight is serious. They’re the second largest ape and the largest tree-dwellers, but their natural habitat is disappearing: they’ve lost 80% over the last 20 years.
Which is why Sepilok, the oldest and largest sanctuary of its kind, was one of the three Act projects for the Young Explorers. It takes in baby orang-utans who’ve either been orphaned, kept as pets, or captured on the palm oil plantations because they eat the young trees. They’re placed in quarantine for three months or more and cured of any diseases, and then they start the rehabilitation process: they’re taken into a huge jungle gym area of the forest, where they’re encouraged to do natural orang-utan stuff – hang about in trees and swing from vine to vine. “They’re a bit lazy, though,” says Hayley Bagnell, our guide. “We have to hide food at different levels or up in the trees to get them moving. We also team them with older orang-utans so that they learn wild, natural behaviour.”
Hayley represents Orang-utan Appeal UK, which raises funds for Sepilok and sponsors the on-site vet and nurse, plus pays for helicopter trips to release the animals in the wild. One of the youngsters we watched at play was completely emaciated, moving much slower than the others. He had probably been a pet that was fed human food, which is no good for these vegetarian, banana and honey-eating primates.
“We feed them bland food so they don’t get too dependent on us – the forest fruits are much tastier and sweeter,” said Hayley. After several years the orang-utans are moved into the reserve, although they can still come for food twice a day if they choose to. Much later they are released into the wild in the Tabin Rainforest Reserve, a 121 000 hectare area (twice the size of Singapore) that’s home to wild orang-utans. “These wild populations offer them a sustainable future,” said Hayley.Sepilok is a beautiful sanctuary, but the YEPs had plenty of questions about the set-up, chiefly that the viewing and feeding platforms in the reserve were all squared off. “They were concerned that there were so many sharp angles – nature just isn’t like that,” said Mike. “They are full of ideas of how we can return at some stage to design and build more organic and natural structures for the orang-utans – we hope that they’ll form a project together to raise funds and adopt their own orang-utan. In between all of us, we have the power to support one of these ‘men of the forest’.”