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Spotting Borneo's orangutans

By Audley Borneo specialist Chris

The first time I saw an orangutan in the wild I was stunned into silence. I’d seen them in zoos and on documentaries, but when you encounter them in their own jungle home, the experience is so much more special. The smells and sounds of the rainforest, with gibbons calling and cicadas singing, create the perfect environment for seeing such majestic animals.

Viewing the orangutans like this, you can appreciate how they live in the treetops, building a different nest to sleep in each night and travelling great distances to forage. However, even if you aren’t lucky enough to spot them swinging through the trees, watching them feeding in the sanctuaries provides a wonderful insight into these engaging creatures. 

Feeding time at Camp Leakey Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Tanjung Puting National Park

Feeding time at Camp Leakey Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Tanjung Puting National Park

Where to spot orangutans

Borneo has two Malaysian states in the north, Sarawak and Sabah, divided by Brunei which sits between them. The majority of the island is Kalimantan, which is part of Indonesia.

For wildlife enthusiasts Sabah offers the opportunity to enjoy a number of different locations, all relatively close to each other (The Danum Valley, Kinabatangan River and Tabin Wildlife Reserve all being superb choices).

For those keen on a more rounded trip, including visiting Iban tribes perhaps, Semenggok in Sarawak offers the chance to see orangutans in a sanctuary, but with little chance of seeing them in the wild.

Finally, Tanjung Puting in Kalimantan is a super option for those who are visiting Indonesia and would love a side trip to this amazing reserve in Indonesian Borneo.

Orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary in Sabah

Orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary in Sabah

The wildlife of Sabah

Pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, crocodile, leopard cats and Borneo's many hornbill species co-exist in Sabah's dense rainforest along with the orangutans, so in my opinion it’s the best all-round wildlife destination in Borneo.

The Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary can be found here as well as the wildlife-rich regions of the Kinabatangan River, Danum Valley and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Sabah also has beautiful tropical islands to explore, dive from or simply relax. One option is Gaya Island, just minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu on Borneo's mainland. With macaques, hornbills, monitor lizards and sea eagles, it's a wildlife destination in its own right. And you can stretch out on white sand beaches and swim and snorkel in crystal clear waters.

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary is located just outside of Sandakan, which is likely to be your entry point into Sabah by air, and provides a good introduction to the orangutans before you head to the jungle. Here you’re almost guaranteed to see rescued youngsters and adults at close quarters.

Visits start with a short video that explains the orangutans’ lifestyle and the survival challenges they face. There’s an interesting exhibition as well, but the highlight is definitely getting to see the ‘Man of the Forest’ swinging in through the trees for his daily banana rations. You can stay the night before or after your visit at the nearby resort, so that you can catch the morning feeding at the sanctuary.

Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan River

Spotting wildlife on the Kinabatangan River

From Sandakan you can journey into the heart of wild orangutan territory via the Kinabatangan River. Travelling on a small private boat means you cover more ground and are less likely to scare off the wildlife than if you were crunching through the jungle on foot. The boat also gets close to the animals without imposing too much on their habitat.

On the Kinabatangan River and its tributaries the best times for seeing wildlife are early morning and before sunset. In the morning it’s cool and from your boat you’ll catch sight of proboscis monkeys, macaques and orangutans waking up and starting their day’s foraging.

Monkeys sleep on the branches of the trees that overhang the river, escaping into the water if a predator tries its luck in the night. Before sunset, orangutans make their nests for the night high in the treetops and it’s not unusual to see mothers with babies clinging tightly to their bellies at this time.

Night boat trips are a great way to see the plentiful nocturnal wildlife with the help of a skilled guide and a powerful torch. It’s common to spot crocodiles’ eyes glinting from the water as well as vibrant kingfishers perched along the water’s edge. The thousands of fireflies are a spectacular sight and I’ve also seen flying squirrels and owls gliding through the trees and over the river.

In the Kinabatangan River area you’ll most likely stay at one of the lodges on the Menanggul Tributary. The accommodation is in simple wooden chalets, with buffet-style meals of mostly local cuisine.

Canopy walk in the Danum Valley

Canopy walk in the Danum Valley

Danum Valley’s orangutan

From the Kinabatangan River, you can continue on to Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley, which is a five hour drive away. The lodge looks out over the Danum River so you have a ringside seat should orangutans venture down from the canopy for a drink.

The accommodation here is as luxurious as you will find in the heart of any rainforest and, as a guest, I was impressed by the service and food, and the knowledge of the lodge’s guides. As well as the jungle’s fauna, you’ll learn about the forest plants and their wide range of traditional uses for everything from medicines to basket weaving.

At around 500, orangutan numbers are high in the Danum Valley and it’s great trekking country. Your private guide will take you along trails in search of the 'Man of the Forest’. Danum’s canopy walkway is a great way to experience life in the treetops and a must for keen birdwatchers, with species like Wallace’s hawk-eagle and the Bornean bristlehead sometimes spotted from the walkway.

You can also opt for a safari vehicle to take you further out into the forest where there are pygmy elephants, a number of species of deer, bearded pigs, and even clouded leopard and the Malayan sun bear.

River lodges at the Tabin Wildlife Resort

River lodges at the Tabin Wildlife Resort

Tabin Wildlife Reserve

An alternative to Danum Valley is Tabin Wildlife Reserve. The accommodation is less impressive, but there’s a higher chance of seeing pygmy elephants as they travel around a smaller territory. Here, as at Danum, the guides keep in touch with each other by walkie-talkie, so if one makes an interesting wildlife sighting the other guides are alerted. I found it particularly exciting to track wildlife in this way, hoping that I’d see an orangutan or elephant around the next corner.

Proboscis monkey in the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo

Proboscis monkey in the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo

The wildlife of Sarawak

Sarawak is more of a cultural destination than Sabah and you can visit and stay in a traditional Iban longhouse. With a colourful history as headhunters, the Iban are the most populous tribe in Borneo, and visiting them in their distinctive family homes to learn about their way of life is an unforgettable experience.

Sarawak has a charming capital city, Kuching, and not far from here you can visit the Semenggok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, which is less well known than Sepilok and tends to be quieter, giving another opportunity to see orangutans. You’ll also find Mulu National Park in Sarawak which has the world’s largest limestone cave system.

Orangutan in the Semenggok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Orangutan in the Semenggok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Semenggok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Semenggok offers a laid-back and intimate wildlife-viewing experience. However, spotting the orangutans is not guaranteed here, particularly when trees in the forest are fruiting and the orangutans are happy to enjoy what is provided by nature.

The sanctuary’s location, outside of Sarawak’s capital Kuching, makes it a great addition to those visiting this attractive and interesting city. It is also a great stop-off for those exploring the interior and staying overnight with an Iban tribe. 

Orangutan in Kalimantan

Orangutan in Kalimantan

Viewing orangutans in Kalimantan

In order to see a large number of wild orangutans the best place to view them is Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. It is not easily combined with an exploration of Malaysian Borneo, but is a good addition to an trip to Indonesia.

Orangutan in Tanjung Puting National Park

Orangutan in Tanjung Puting National Park

Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesia

In Tanjung Puting National Park the orangutans are completely free to roam, but have the option of supplementing their diets by visiting feeding stations where visitors can watch. Camp Leakey Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which cares for orphaned and rescued orangutans, gives the opportunity to see them at close hand.

Travelling by river is your way of getting close to orangutans and other wildlife. The feeding stations are near to the river and your private boat, or klotok, will stop at a pontoon from where it’s a short walk to a jungle clearing where you can wait for the show to start. A ranger calls out to announce feeding time and soon the trees start to shake and wild orangutans swing straight past you.

I was surprised by how little attention they paid to humans. I watched for around an hour, during which Tom, a large male, took the lion’s share of the bananas and the other orangutans were clearly intimidated. One cheeky gibbon did sneak onto the platform to pinch a few bananas but scarpered before Tom could react.

In Tanjung Puting, I suggest spending two or three days on your boat to maximise the number of orangutan encounters you have. It can be basic, you sleep on deck under mosquito nets and eat on board. However those wanting some creature comforts can choose an air-conditioned bedroom inside the boat.

The food is tasty, local fare and I loved the experience of sleeping out under the stars listening to cicadas and waking up to the splash of crocodiles in the water below. On one trip, a pod of Irrawaddy river dolphins swam alongside our klotok which was an unexpected treat.

A third night could be spent at Rimba Lodge; it’s not much more luxurious but provides a night on solid ground.

Tanjung Puting is accessed from the town of Kumai, in southwest Kalimantan, where your flight from Indonesia will land. You’ll be met here by your guide and driver and taken to the jetty to board your klotok, which heads up the Sekonyer River.

It’s easy to combine time in Java, exploring Indonesia’s rich culture, with Kalimantan. Domestic flights are by far the easiest way to get around, but it’s worth noting that schedules can change at the last minute so leave some flexibility in your itinerary. Also it is worth being aware that the airlines aren’t approved to EU safety standards.

Male orangutan in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve

Male orangutan in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve

Orangutan conservation

A number of organisations are carrying out vital work to rehabilitate orangutans, protect their habitat and prevent poaching. One such organisation is Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) and there are also many international charities such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Village in Sarawak region of Borneo

Village in Sarawak region of Borneo

Best time to visit Borneo

The best time to visit Borneo to spot orangutans is between March and October. If you can I would recommend avoiding July and August do as they’re the busiest months.

Start planning your wildlife spotting trip to Malaysian or Indonesian Borneo

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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