Where to see orangutans in Sabah

Sabah's best places to see orangutans

Borneo is the only island in the world that is home to three nations: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesian Kalimantan. Sabah is one of the two Malaysian Borneo states in the northern part of the island. It was part of the British protectorate of North Borneo until 1963.

Mountainous and jungle-covered, with astounding flora and fauna, Sabah’s nickname — the land below the wind — stems from its location: just south of the typhoon belt, in the equatorial doldrums. There are approximately 11,000 orangutans in Sabah.

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Why choose Sabah to see orangutans?

Sabah is home to Borneo’s most iconic orangutan-spotting and rehabilitation centre, Sepilok, which draws thousands of tourists each year. Located on the northeast coast and easily accessed by car, coach or local bus services, this is the place to see orphaned orangutans learn the necessary life skills to be let loose into the wild again.

Sabah also boasts some of the island’s most amazing conservation spots to see orangutans in their natural habitat: the Kinabatangan River area and Danum Valley. At the same time, you will come face to face with a whole lot of other wildlife: various primates including pot-bellied proboscis monkeys, Borneo elephants, Sunda clouded leopards and tropical birdlife galore. Of an estimated 104,000 orangutans left in Borneo, Sabah is home to about 11,000.

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Where to see orangutans in Sabah

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Immersed in rainforest on Sabah’s northeast coast on the lip of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, lies the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre — arguably Borneo’s most famous place to see orangutans. The first rehab centre for orphaned orangutans in the world, Sepilok was set up as a joint effort by Englishwoman Barbara Harrison and the government of Sabah in 1964. The centre cares for young orangutans orphaned as a result of illegal logging and those kept as pets, aiming to teach them the skills necessary to re-enter the wild.

Baby orangutans stay with their mothers for up to six years, learning how to forage, feed and most importantly, climb. At Sepilok, orphaned orangutans are paired with older ones in the hope that they’ll pick up the necessary skills. For infant orangutans, 24-hour care is provided by humans and in the centre’s nursery. It can take up to seven years for an orangutan to be released back into the wild.

Now operated by Sabah’s Wildlife Department, the key attraction here is feeding time, which happens between 09:00-12:00 and 14:00-16:00. On arrival, you will watch a brief movie on the site’s history at the visitor information centre. From there, a boardwalk leads through the rainforest to an orangutan playground, where — from behind a glass observation window — you can watch the centre’s youngest residents playing on swings and climbing and clambering around.

Then, it’s onto the feeding platform, perched up in the trees about 25m from the viewing area. The number of orangutans here depends largely on how many are in the area and how hungry they are. Once the huge apes are full of bananas and vitamin shakes, they set off to have a swing and a play. You’ll also see macaques and gibbons swing by for a bite to eat.

It’s important to follow the centre guidelines and never touch, harass or try to take selfies with the orangutans — remember this is a rehabilitation centre, not a zoo.

While at Sepilok, it’s also worth visiting the neighbouring Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, for a look at the world’s smallest bear species (averaging 120-150cm in height).

Sepilok is about 25km west of the waterside town of Sandakan. There are several daily flights in and out of Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital, and some flights from Kuala Lumpur. If you are not on a tour, you can get there easily by car, taxi or by bus from Sandakan.

Orangutans near the Kinabatangan River

The 560km Sungai Kinabatangan is Sabah’s longest waterway and the second largest in Malaysia. This mighty river is an excellent place to see both wild orangutans and in conservation.

A good place to start your journey is the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Created in 1999, this is one of only two places in the world inhabited by ten species of primates, including many orangutans and long-nosed, leaf-eating proboscis monkeys. Both species thrive on the river’s mangrove and freshwater swamp habitat.

The best way of seeing the apes is to take a day or overnight tour from Sandakan. Several nature lodges located along the river offer wildlife safaris in the early morning, afternoon and evening, guided by excellent boatmen and spotters. These experts are adept at seeing orangutans sitting high in the mangrove trees along the riverbank chomping on fruits. The sanctuary is also home to langurs and an abundance of birdlife, including hornbills, crested serpent eagles and stork-billed kingfishers. If you’re very lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of a Bornean elephant, while the river itself is home to freshwater sharks and crocodiles.

Wildlife is present here year-round, though keep in mind March-April is the dry season, so there will be less rain.

The area is also home to the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, a conservation centre run in partnership with French NGO HUTAN. It works with local communities on environmental education programmes and research projects. Although not a tourist-oriented enterprise like Sepilok, the centre may help you source guides should you wish to search for wild orangutans.

Orangutans in the Danum Valley Conservation Area

The 438sq/km Danum Valley protected forest reserve is one of the largest swathes of primary lowland dipterocarp rainforest in Borneo, set aside for wildlife conservation, research and education since the 1980s. So thick is the forest here (trees can grow to 70m high) that humans have never settled permanently, but perhaps that’s why it is one of the best and most reliable locations for wildlife sightings, with recent studies putting the number of orangutans in the area at around 500.

If you choose to visit Danum, you must book accommodation in advance at one of the only two lodges available: either the nuts and bolts accommodation of the Danum Valley Field Centre - one of the leading rainforest research hubs in Southeast Asia, or at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, whose wooden chalets by the river constitute one of Borneo’s leading nature resorts.

Activities at both lodges include nature trails, guided jungle treks, night wildlife excursions, canopy walks and birdwatching. Wandering the trails quietly, you might easily pass an orangutan swinging happily in a tree, or observe a whole troop of cheeky red leaf monkeys, playing around at sunset. On the night wildlife excursions, it is not uncommon to spot clouded leopards and sun bears, as well as the weird and wonderful, bulging-eyed western tarsier, a small leaping primate. One for the adventurous.

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Orangutan spotting in Sabah at a glance

Sepilok: On Sabah’s northeast coast, travelling from the town of Sandakan, you can visit both the famous Orangutan Rehabilitation centre at feeding time, and the neighbouring Sun Bear Conservation Centre for a close-up -- though controlled -- encounter with the man of the forest.

Kinabatangan River: With the highest concentration of orangutans in Malaysian Borneo, sightings here are pretty much guaranteed on the day/overnight river wildlife safaris offered by many tour companies and riverside lodges. Proboscis and pit vipers are among other common sightings on the dawn and dusk treks through the river’s mangrove and swamp environments.

Danum Valley: Located within a vast, fully-protected expanse of undulating tropical rainforest, not only is this home to a sizeable population of orangutans but a wildlife spotting place par excellence. Look for the rare Sumatran rhino, pygmy elephants, sun bears and clouded leopards and ten primates in all.

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