Volunteering with orangutans is one of the best ways to help conserve this critically endangered species. The dangers facing orangutans are many: deforestation, illegal logging, being kept in captivity and hunting are all contributing to a declining orangutan population. There are many different volunteer programmes you can choose to join.

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Paid for programmes or volunteer for free

The two main options for volunteering with orangutans are programmes where you pay a fee to work with the animals for a set amount of time (normally between 2-4 weeks) and programmes where you give up your time for free.

Paid for programmes are normally run by charities. The fee you pay — normally anything from a couple of hundred pounds to several thousand — contributes directly to the upkeep of the orangutans and survival of the project. You’ll be provided with accommodation and board during your stay. Paid-for programmes accept volunteers without any direct skills in conservation. You’ll spend your time creating a better environment for the orangutans, whether that’s constructing enclosures or feeding platforms, cleaning out cages or general maintenance. It’s important to note that the majority of your time won’t be directly in contact with the orangutans, but rather working on the environment in which they live.

It’s also possible to put your real-life skills to work in volunteering projects for orangutans. For example, web developers or copywriters could revamp the charity’s website, vets could work more closely with the animals or carpenters could lead on construction. Most programmes will ask you to list your skills so they can try and make the best use of your time.

Although fewer in number, some projects do allow visitors to volunteer for free. However, these are generally more on maintenance projects and do not involve working directly with orangutans or other wildlife.

The daily routine of a volunteer

The daily routine of a volunteer varies depending on the programme. However, you can expect mornings to begin early (around 8am to avoid the worst of the midday sun), with basic husbandry the main task. This can be preparing food for the orangutans, cleaning out enclosures, watering plants — anything that is needed to get the centre up and running. Expect an extended lunch break when the sun is at its hottest, before an afternoon of maintenance, construction and more cleaning.

Tasks can include peeling and cutting fruit, building and repairing feeding stations and even interaction with tourists and guests, if the rehabilitation centre offers tours.

It’s important to note that volunteer programmes aren’t just about time spent with orangutans. You’ll also spend a lot of time interacting with other volunteers, visitors and site personnel. This also means that evenings are spent sharing stories with other volunteers — it’s important to be sociable and to be prepared for communal living.

Weekends are free and volunteers often explore other parts of Borneo, Malaysia or Indonesia, whether national parks, major cities or resorts.

Where can I volunteer with orangutans?

There are numerous volunteer programmes with orangutans in the region but perhaps the two most popular pay-to-volunteer programmes are at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah and the Matang Wildlife Centre in Sarawak.

Sepilok offers four-week pay-to-volunteer programmes starting every month, including accommodation, transfers, board and excursions to nearby wildlife sanctuaries and conservation projects. The programme involves working at the centre’s indoor and outdoor nurseries, field surveys, preparing food and cleaning out enclosures.

Matang Wildlife Centre offers the opportunity to work with orangutans and other animals at its centre. Pay-to-volunteer programmes here last either 14 or 28 days, starting twice a month. Accommodation, airport transfers and essential food and drink are included in the booking price.

Outside of these two main programmes, you may be able to volunteer with research or conservation centres that do not work directly with orangutans.

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