The best places to see orangutans are also the only places you can see them in their natural habitat -- on their native islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Seeing wild orangutans means embarking on a guided jungle trek, but there are several sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres which offer a more accessible way to see orangutans feeding and swinging through the trees. While many of these centres do invaluable work protecting and conserving orangutans, it’s well worth making the extra effort to try to see them in their natural habitat if you can.

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Where to see orangutans in the wild

How to see orangutans in their natural habitat

The best place to see orangutans is in the wild, but that is easier said than done.

Put simply — to see wild orangutans, you need to journey further into the rainforest, away from the bigger tour groups. In locations like the Kinabatangan River, you’ll slowly journey up the water on a klotok, looking for sun bears, crocodiles and proboscis monkeys before docking and touring through the jungle, listening to birdsong and tracking orangutans. Here, you might not see another tour group at all. The experience is completely different from a rehab centre.

There are four places you can see orangutans — the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sumatra, Indonesia’s Kalimantan, and Sarawak, which spans both countries. Perhaps the most easily accessible is Sabah, with Kalimantan the least westernised region. Choosing where to see orangutans depends on the type of experience you want. Here are the options.

Your best chance of seeing a wild orangutan is in Sabah, purely due to numbers. There are approximately 11,000 wild orangutans in Sabah, compared with just 1,600 in Sarawak.

Choosing your destination will depend on your level of fitness, the type of trip you want (hiking/boating) and what else you want to see on your trip. Expect to spend at least three to four days on a wild orangutan tour, staying either on a klotok boat or in rainforest lodges.

Best places to see wild orangutans

Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve, Sabah

The Kinabatangan River is Sabah’s largest waterway and is the most popular destination for those looking to glimpse an orangutan in the wild. Most visitors choose to cruise down the river, taking the occasional jungle trek and overnight camping stay. As well as orangutans, you can also spot pygmy elephants, macaques, crocodiles and other wildlife.

Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah

This is the real jungle. Thick with trees and lush tropical plants, the Danum Valley is an isolated, wild area where orangutans, proboscis monkeys and many bird species can be spotted. For a proper jungle experience, try a nocturnal guided trek, when the forest comes alive with the sound of wildlife.

Maliau Basin Conservation Area, Sabah

This pristine rainforest was unreachable for decades. Then, in the 1980s, scientists and primate researchers began to cautiously explore the area. Now open to a limited amount of tourism, this is a great place to see truly wild orangutans. A word of warning — trekking here is arduous, so you’ll need to be physically fit.

Batang Ai, Sarawak

The only place to see wild orangutans in Sarawak, Batang Ai National Park is most famous for the contributions of the indigenous Iban tribe, who conserve the rainforest and conduct surveys into the orangutans. Make sure you take time to engage with Iban culture if you choose to look for orangutans in Batang Ai.

Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra

Home to the Sumatran orangutan, UNESCO-listed Gunung Leuser National Park offers the opportunity to see proboscis monkeys, gibbons and hornbills. If you’re lucky, you may even spot the incredibly rare Sumatran tiger or rhino.

Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan

Home to the world’s largest population of wild orangutans, Indonesia’s Tanjung Puting National Park is also the base for several conservation centres. Most visitors take a traditional klotok boat upriver, looking for sun bears, proboscis monkeys, civets and gibbons. Visitors to this park normally spend a few days cruising upriver.

Orangutan rehabilitation centres

Can you see captive orangutans ethically?

Orangutan rehabilitation centres provide a safe haven for orphaned and injured orangutans to recover with a view to being released back into the wild. Many offer feeding platforms for orangutans, where visitors can see the animals swinging through the forest.

Be wary of centres that promote direct contact with wildlife. For more tips, see How To Find A Real Sanctuary.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah

The largest orangutan rehabilitation centre in the world, Sepilok cares for orphaned orangutans who buddy up with older apes to learn how to survive in the wild. Visiting revolves around feeding times at the centre, but Sepilok also offers volunteer placements.

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, Sarawak

A couple of hours from Kuching, Semenggoh is a rehabilitation centre for orphaned and injured orangutans. Here, they learn the survival skills needed for re-entry into the forest. Visitors get to see orangutans feeding in the morning and afternoon, where they can practice their swinging and nest building skills.

Matang Wildlife Centre, Sarawak

This unique wildlife centre offers refuge to injured an orphaned orangutans, as well as other wildlife such as sun bears and civet cats. Visitors can watch the animals feeding, or for the more adventurous, volunteer on placements.

Camp Leakey, Kalimantan

Perhaps the world’s most famous orangutan centre, Camp Leakey is named for the legendary primatologist Louis Leakey and is run by Dr Birute Galdikas. Come for feeding time and the world-class information centre.

Volunteering with orangutans

The perils of wildlife volunteering

The dangers facing orangutans are many: deforestation, illegal logging, being kept in captivity and hunting are all contributing to a declining orangutan population. Simply visiting with a responsible tour operator is by far the best way to help the critically endangered orangutan. Your visit creates economic value in the protection of their natural habitat, and contributes to the livelihoods of those who have a direct stake in orangutan conservation.

Due to persistent reports of unethical and poorly-managed programmes, Horizon Guides will no longer include any details of orangutan volunteer organisations. We advise you to visit Borneo with a reputable operator and leave the important conservation and rehabilitation work to the professionals.

For more information on orangutan conservation issues see the excellent Friends of the Orangutans website.

Read more

A good indicator for a responsible voluntourism programme is whether or not you'll be expected to do work for which you're unqualified in your home country. For instance, at home, would you be qualified to come into direct contact and work with wild animals? If not, then you shouldn't expect to do so on a volunteering project abroad. For a detailed look at how to find and plan a successful and worthwhile volunteering trip see our companion guides, Adventures Less Ordinary: How to travel and do good and Wild Encounters: Ethical tourism for animal lovers.

How to visit orangutans responsibly

How to have an ethical and safe trip

Orangutans may be our closest relatives, not chimps — at least if you believe a 2009 American study, which suggests that as well as sharing nearly 97% of our DNA with orangutans, we also share 28 physical characteristics. Whatever the case, orangutans are extraordinarily humanlike in their gestures. They are capable of learning complex tasks, expressing emotions and developing strong bonds.

When visiting orangutans in the wild or in conservation centres, it’s best not to have any expectations. This will allow for the unpredictability of the experience to take its natural course. Everyone experiences orangutan viewings and interactions in a different way.

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Health and safety

Orangutans are gentle giants and attacks on humans are very rare, but they have happened when the apes feel threatened. In order to avoid threatening orangutans, be respectful of the animal. Never hold, feed, touch, play with or in any way disturb an orangutan and always move at least six metres away from an animal that is on the ground. Never try to take selfies with orangutans and be aware of guides that encourage you to do so — this behaviour can be extremely stressful for orangutans. When viewing the animal in the wild, contact is best avoided to stop orangutans becoming too used to humans and developing bonds with them.

While you do not need any vaccinations to visit orangutans, humans can communicate certain diseases to orangutans and vice-versa, so contact is discouraged.

What to pack and wear

It’s vital to wear cool, breathable clothes when visiting orangutans, particularly in the wild. Humidity in Borneo’s rainforest can reach up to 95% and it is very hot, so you’ll be sweating. Wear fabrics like cotton or linen and bring plenty of water and sunscreen. Try to wear long-sleeve tops and trousers if jungle trekking — leeches are common. The region is also prone to occasional downpours, so bring a light waterproof jacket.

Depending on how you choose to see orangutans, you may wish to bring walking boots. If you’re only visiting the rehabilitation centres, most paths are well trodden so trainers will probably be enough.

The orangutan experience

No tour company will be able to guarantee that you’ll see orangutans on your trip. However, choosing to visit an orangutan rehabilitation centre makes it much more likely. Here, rangers call out to the orangutans as they carry sacks of bananas and sugar cane to the feeding stations. This will usually be greeted by whooping and the sight of orangutans swinging through the trees as they come for a free meal. You’re more likely to see a female and her babies than a large male orangutan.

Seeing orangutans in the wild can be a much more fleeting experience. You’re more likely to catch a glimpse of an orangutan in a tree than up close at a feeding station. However, this is a much more immersive experience, involving cruising up a river on a klotok, staying with indigenous tribes and learning more about the rainforest.

Alongside orangutans, there are many other animals worth seeing, from sun bears to macaques, hornbills to crocodiles and all sorts of creepy crawlies.

Orangutan viewing guidelines

Regardless of whether you choose to see orangutans in the wild or at rehabilitation centres, always remember that you’re looking at a wild animal.

Keep a respectful distance — Stay at least 10m away from any orangutan so that it does not feel threatened

Don’t feed the orangutans — Never feed the orangutans. Doing so encourages behaviour that is detrimental to their survival in the wild

Stay away if you feel ill — Humans can be extremely contagious to orangutans and can transmit airborne diseases. Some viewing places will ask you to wear a mask

Keep noise down and don’t disturb the natural habitat — Keep your voice low and never call out to an orangutan.

Visit local communities and use local guides — Conservation and sustainable ecotourism relies on the participation of the local community.

Orangutan FAQs

All you need to know to begin planning your trip to Borneo

Do I need any vaccinations to see orangutans?

There are no vaccinations required to see orangutans, but humans can pass certain diseases on to orangutans and vice-versa, so contact is discouraged. Depending on where else you choose to visit, you may need to take malaria tablets or have vaccinations. As with any travel, speak to your doctor to get the most up to date medical advice.

What will seeing orangutans be like?

Try not to have any expectations. Remember that it is a privilege to see these animals at all and each experience will be different. Respect the orangutan, so do not call out to it, feed it or approach it. There are other reasons for this: to rule out potential danger if the orangutan feels threatened, and to avoid the animals becoming too used to humans or developing bonds with them.

What’s the difference between visiting orangutans in the wild vs conservation centres?

Orangutans on show in conservation centres are just that. Remarkable as they are, the spectacle is staged and the orangutans are habituated to come every day at the same time for food. This does not rule out variety, or unpredictability, but narrows it down.

Seeing orangutans in the wild is more difficult, but is also more exciting and more compelling. It can also be disturbing when you see their natural environment being compromised by forestry, palm oil and other industries.

How can you ensure that the places you visit are ethical?

Choose your tour group well. There are a handful of local setups — in Sarawak, Sabah, and Borneo-wide — who really stand out as ecotourism pioneers. Going local is generally better. Try to use a tour company who is genuinely local (and not just a foreign interest with a local shopfront), and is actively involved with local communities and on the ground conservation. When booking with them, always mention this as one of your reasons for getting involved.

How physically difficult are orangutan tours?

This depends entirely on the tour you choose to take. Some jungle treks allow you to decide how much or how little you trek, while others feature full-on itineraries with full-day walks. Whatever option you choose, it’s important to remember that the climate will play a big part in how physically fit you feel. With high humidity and temperatures, it is easy to get more tired, more quickly.

Should I tip my orangutan guides?

Tipping is not compulsory nor expected, so how much you tip is entirely up to you. If you do choose to tip, try to do so for both good service and ethical behaviour — this encourages guides to become more ethical.

What is life like on board a klotok?

Klotoks are the famous houseboats that you’ll sail on to reach more remote parts of the jungle or rainforest. Typically, visitors will stay for several days on board the klotok while exploring the rainforest. On most klotoks, you’ll sleep on the top deck in the open air, with mosquito nets and clean bedding. Showers are generally buckets of water (although more upmarket ones may have showerheads) and most don’t have electricity.

A klotok tour is a chance to unwind and experience the jungle scenery, away from the gadgets (and comforts) of modern life. Apart from trekking, watching the jungle go by and eating delicious home-cooked food, there is little else to do — but that can make for a magically relaxing experience.

When to see orangutans in Borneo

Borneo climate, seasons, events & festivals

Sitting astride the equator, Borneo has a warm, tropical climate. Although it is broadly possible to separate Borneo’s climate into the usual two seasons for the region — wet and dry — weather conditions are often very localised and extremely difficult to predict. Even in the dry season, it is better to prepare for the odd downpour rather than assuming it will stay dry.

Unusually for South East Asia, the dry season in Borneo runs from March to October, and the heaviest rainfall is in December and January, although the far north is at its driest in February and March. Kinabalu National Park is considerably cooler than its surrounding lowlands so make sure to pack layers to keep warm, especially in the evening.

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Climate and seasons for Sepilok

January is best avoided in Borneo, as heavy rains fall over the majority of the country and most wildlife will hide away in the dense jungle. February brings drier weather in the north of the country, so head to Gaya Island or plan a trek up Kinabalu, taking advantage of the low season offers. March and April offer more dry weather, as well as the start of whale shark season for divers, which runs until May.

June, July and August are peak season on the island, with the best travel conditions but the biggest crowds and highest prices. The wildlife is very active at this point in the year – the summer months are a perfect time to see the famous orangutans and turtles native to Borneo. It is also the best time of year for diving, with excellent visibility of up to 40m on calm days. Baby turtles hatch on Turtle Island in August.

September marks the end of high season and while the weather is not as reliable, the crowds thin and there is still a good chance of sunshine in the majority of the island. Head away from the coast and travel inland to the Danum Valley and Kinabatangan River. October is similar to September but brings more frequent rain, which really takes hold in November and December. This is Borneo’s low season and can be a good time to take advantage of cheaper prices.

Events & festivals

The heavy rains mean that the beginning of the year is quiet on the festival front, although Chinese New Year is celebrated at the end of January or start of February.

The majority of Borneo’s festivals fall in the dry season. May brings the Miri Jazz Festival to northern Sarawak, where world-famous musicians entertain the crowds, whatever the weather. The festival only allows a very small number of tickets to be purchased at the gate, so make sure to buy yours online before you go to save disappointment.

The end of May is Borneo’s Harvest Festival called Gawai Dayak. It is a national holiday in Sarawak. Beginning at sundown on May 31st, the celebrations include wearing traditional dress, sharing of food, music and even a ritual sacrifice of a chicken.

The middle of the dry season is also the high point for festival season. Head to Kuching for the Rainforest Music festival in July, where musicians from all over the world perform at this three-day festival – one of the biggest in Asia. Despite the dry season date, it is likely to be as muddy as anything Glastonbury can offer. If the mud puts you off, instead head for Sibiu, where the Borneo Cultural Festival draws 20,000 visitors each July to marvel at Borneo’s indigenous music, art and culture.

As the festival season draws to a close, don’t miss the Borneo International Kite Festival in Bintulu where teams fly complex kites over Bintulu airfield. Held in September, this festival includes cultural performances and authentic Malaysian food, making for some excellent photography opportunities. For something more cultural, visit Tenggarong in East Kalimantan for Erau, one of Indonesia’s oldest festivals. Held since the 16th century, Erau celebrates the region’s Dayak people with music, traditional dance and sporting events.

Where to see orangutans

Tamara Thiessen

Journalist-travel writer and photographer, Tamara Thiessen is an expert on Borneo with her 4th edition Bradt Travel Guide to the island due in 2020. France-Australia based, she works for newspapers, travel & leisure publications and in-flight magazines worldwide and is the author of several books

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