Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian Sabah District of North Borneo was founded in 1964, to rehabilitate orphan orangutans. The site is 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Today around 60 to 80 orangutans are living free in the reserve.
When Sabah became an independent state in Malaysia in 1963, a Game Branch was created in the Forest Department for the conservation of wild animals in the region.
Consequently, 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve was turned into a rehabilitation site for orangutans, and a centre built to care for the apes. Today around 25 young orphaned orangutans are housed in the nurseries, in addition to those free in the reserve.
The facility provides medical care for orphaned and confiscated orangutans as well as dozens of other wildlife species. Some of the other animals which have been treated at the centre include; sun bears, gibbons, Sumatran rhinos and the occasional injured elephant.
Recently rehabilitated individuals have their diet supplemented by daily feedings of milk and bananas. The additional food supplied by the centre is purposefully designed to be monotonous and boring so as to encourage the apes to start to forage for themselves.
Sepilok is considered by the Wildlife Department to be a useful educational tool with which to educate both the locals and visitors alike, but they are adamant that the education must not interfere with the rehabilitation process. Visitors are restricted to walkways and are not allowed to approach or handle the apes.
In the wild orang utan babies stay with their mothers for up to six years while they are taught the skills they need to survive in the forest, the most important of which is climbing. At Sepilok a buddy system is used to replace a mother’s teaching. A younger ape will be paired up with an older one to help them to develop the skills they need.
The creation of reserve areas minimises the impact of deforestation on orangutans and far fewer young apes become the victim of the illegal pet trade as a result of these ‘sanctuaries’. Babies are often caught during logging or forest clearance or captured by poachers who slaughter the adult apes to reach them. The Malaysian Government has clamped down on illegal trading, outlawing all such practice and imposing prison sentences on anyone caught keeping them as pets.
Youngsters kept in captivity often become sick or suffer neglect which in some cases extends to cruelty. Whilst some of the orangutans raised as pets can never be returned to the wild, others can be rehabilitated; it is a long and expensive process, taking up to seven years but one centres such as Sepilok take on without question.