Last updated 4 Feb 2020

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.


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.


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

See also Compassionate Travel: A guide to animal-friendly holidays

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