Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre ~ Sepilok, Sandakan : Sabah Borneo

The beginnings of Sepilok OrangUtan Rehabilitation Centre - Burgess, Tom & Barbara Harrisson

The original idea of an orangutan rehabilitation project was proposed in 1961 by P.F. Burgess, the Deputy Conservator of Forests then. Soon after, Barbara Harrisson started a mission to rescue orangutans kept by locals as pets. Their idea was to rehabilitate these captive individuals in hope that one day they may return to the wild . In 1962, together with WWF, Barbara Harrisson went to Sabah . Keeping orangutans as pets have long since been in the habit of locals. Even Agnes Keith (author of 'Land below the wind') had a young orangutan under her care back in Sandakan in the 1930's. By 1963, logging had cut deep into the heart of Sabah or North Borneo and already then, Barbara and Tom Harrisson reported that the orangutans were threatened with extinction. Although Barbara's work alongside her husband Tom was invaluable in documenting early archaeological works and also on conservation of species in Borneo after WWII, Tom's larger-than-life character seemed to have overshadowed her importance.

Heimann, a U.S. diplomat who first met English cultural anthropologist - Tom Harrisson(1911-1976) in Borneo described him to be, 'a romantic polymath, a drunken bully, an original-thinking iconoclast, a dreadful husband and father, a fearless adventurer, a Richard Burton of his time..' . Tom Harrison first parachuted behind enemy lines in Borneo in1945. He was a British Army Major who commanded 7 fellow Special Operations agents . In his daring quest to quell the advancement of the Japanese Army, he cooked up an unbelievable plan recruit guerrillas, set up an intelligence network and raise an army of Dayak headhunters who by the time the Allied troops landed, had killed or captured 1500 Japanese.

As with all naturalists, anthropologists, adventurers and treasure hunters who traveled the world in the 1950's,- everybody knew everybody in this tight knit, elite community of explorers. David Attenborough had the pleasure of meeting Tom. And this he wrote, 'Explorer, museum curator, guerilla fighter, pioneer sociologist, documentary filmmaker, anthropologist-Tom Harrisson was all these things. He was also arrogant, choleric, swashbuckling, often drunk and nearly always deliberately outrageous. In spite of these contradictions, he became a key figure in every enterprise he undertook.'

For more on the life of Tom Harrisson, get this book titled 'The Most Offending Soul Alive: The Life of Tom Harrisson (Paperback) - by Judith M. Heimann (Author)'. And if you get to catch it on BBC Four, a documentary called Tom Harrisson - The Barefoot Anthropologist; narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

After the war, Tom Harrisson remained in Borneo and took on the position of curator of Sarawak Musuem. His passion for life knew no boundaries. In the course of his life in Borneo he contributed immensely to archiving, discovering and preserving parts of Borneo and its people as he saw it. He also pioneered the conservation of green turtles and together with Barbara helped establish the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve and the Orangutan Centre

Today the Sepilok Centre attracts about 100,000+ people a year. As compared with 2004 when we first visited the centre, these days cruise ships arrive and tourists throng the centre on a daily basis just to see the orangutans in their natural habitat. Most of the time, visitors only get to see the young orangutans during feeding time at the observation platform a mere 10minutes walk into a forested area. The clinic, nursery and other areas where young orphaned orangutans are kept - are out of bounds. The orangutans are susceptible to infections and virus that humans carry and can die easily from contagions. For the wellbeing of the older ones, the rangers encourage as little interaction with humans as possible in hope that when they are released back into the jungles, they will learn to live independently of humans.

This centre sits at the edge of the 4,294 hectare or the 43sq km, Kabili-Sepilok Forest . The reserve is named after 2 rivers that flow through and drains into the Sandakan Bay, and they together with 5 other smaller rivers are also the lifelines of inhabitants living within its confines. The Kabili-Sepilok reserve protects a fraction of tropical lowland Dipterocarp forest that used to cover much of these parts of Sandakan and which also includes a small coverage of mangrove swamp. This too is fast disappearing to commercialisation and plantations. Kabili-Sepilok Forest also protects all fauna and flora including orangutans that had been rescued, rehabilitated and released into the forest. Although this is a forest reserve and it is protected under Class VI Virgin Jungle Reserve but it can be given out for logging by the Conservator of Forest.

There was some selective logging between 1910 and 1967 but nothing since except for illegal logging with minimal impact. The forest reserve is also home to the mousedeers, wildboars, waterfowls, kingfishers, other small and overlooked creatures; while the mangrove swamp and waters shelter and feed dugongs and dolphins. The orangutans, gibbons, macaques and proboscis monkeys are also found here. Because of its small roaming area, large animals are missing from here. In the 1930's, records show that there were replanting activities after logging was conducted hence after 70+ years, the tree stock is still sustainable in the area. This is good news for tree swinging primates and apes where most are arboreal which means that they

hardly come down to the forest floor and require an unbroken canopy of trees above for them to move through the forest.

There are several nature trails that lead into the reserve and takes trekkers from tropical highland to lowland mangrove swamps. These trails are open daily from 9.00am till 4.15pm and trekkers are required to register at the Sepilok Rehab Centre's reception. If you need to make plans before going, you can request for your hotel concierge to call on your behalf or get in touch with the officer at the centre:

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Tel: +6 089 531 180 Fax: +6 089 531 189

Email :

The centre opens:

Daily from 9.00am till 12.00pm and 2.00pm till 4.00pm

Fridays 9.00am till 11.00am, 2.00pm till 4.00pm

Trails within the reserve

  • Birder's Tower Trail (1.4km)
  • A relatively short trail with small clearings for some good birding activity • Sepilok Water Hole (2 km)
  • This trip takes 2 hours to and fro so bring some light snacks and water with you

  • Mangrove Forest Walk (5 km)
  • This walk takes approximately 2 hours one way. It's possible to overnight in a cabin at Sepilok Laut or hire a boat back to Sandakan from the jetty here. This trail requires some coordination so trekkers are required to apply for a permit from the Forestry Department. For more information, call the reception. Normally, a few details are needed and will be faxed to the Forestry Department. Then permit will normally be faxed back to the centre and trekkers are to collect and register at the reception.

    Be sure to bring food supplies and basic bedding such as sleeping bags etc, if you choose to stay overnight in the jungle.

    It is wise to bring raincoats along on the trek. Certain times of the year, the trails may be impassable due to flooding especially along the lowlying areas..where overspill from the rivers temporarily floods the area.

    The centre itself contains a clinic, the visitor information centre and the video room. The info centre provides a good breakdown (if not a little dated - check out the groovy 1970's attired attendants in the pics) of the work carried out at the centre plus capture of the 2 sumatran rhinos residing at Sepilok.

    Across from the video room is the reception. Here, visitors can purchase the entrance tickets.

    Admission Rates


    Above 17 years old: Malaysian RM5, Non-Malaysian RM30

    17 years old and below: Malaysian RM2, Non-Malaysian RM15

    Use of Cameras, camcorders, camera phones etc will be charged RM10.00.

    Popular souvenir shop across the hall sells all sorts of Orangutan paraphernalia from cuddly soft toys to mugs and t-shirts. For more on orangutans, log into

    Sepilok Orangutan Appeal UK

    This charity organization headquatered in the UK, maintains its main operations in Sepilok. Some years ago, Sue Sheward came to Borneo on holiday. Many tourists choose Sabah as a holiday destination primarily to catch a glimpse of its diverse wildlife especially the Orangutan. (I cant think of any other animal that has stolen so many hearts apart from the Giant Panda). Sue, like many, fell in love with the Orangutans. She returned to the UK and started raising money from raffles and jumble sales - finally collecting enough money to start her first project. In 2000, Sue founded the Sepilok Orangutan Appeal, the only Non Government Organisation (NGO) to have been accepted by the Malaysian Government to date. The Appeal also has adoption programmes where interested individuals or corporations can help by adopting young orphans at the Sepilok Centre for as little as 25 per annum. Volunteers or staff at the Appeal man a booth at the reception centre and are happy to help on individual's enquiries on how to help.

    There is now a pressing need to translocate rehabilitated orangutans into areas like Tabin Wildlife Reserve on the North Eastern Side of Sabah, Borneo. This 121,000 hectare site has been gazetted for a wildlife reserve park and according to the resident primatologist, working at Sepilok Centre under the Sepilok Orangutan Appeal UK , already 4 individuals have been sent to the camp in a remote part of Tabin jungle. These 4 juveniles, 2 males ( Tobby and Brock) and 2 females (Tompong and Suzana) have been released into the wild but they are still adapting to their new home and usually hang around the camp area. Tompong and Suzana seemed to be adapting well and are able to move around on the canopy easily. Also, they have been very successful in buidling their daily nests, twice a day - one for a mid day snooze and the other for the evening turn in. The 2 boys on the other hand, have not been adapting too well and Brock was injured in a fall. He had to be taken back to sepilok for some rehab time. The juvenile orangutans have buddy systems and are introduced to this system as soon as they arrive at the centre. These little ones need interaction and communication with other individuals and since their mothers are no longer able to provide that sense of security, the next best thing is to have a buddy. Tobby had a difficult time and missed his buddy terribly, spending even more time around the camp area. But Brock was doing fine back at the centre and scheduled to be returned to Tabin. Tabin has currently an estimated 1,500 orangutans roaming the vast reserve whereas Sepilok - Kabili Reserve has 250 individuals. The orangutan requires roaming space and an average of 4 orangutans per km sq. is a little worrying for the health of these individuals. Hence the need to traslocate them.

    The translocation programme is an expensive affair. The helicopter has to be flown in from Kota Kinabalu and the orangutans picked up at Sepilok and sent to Tabin. Tabin's orangutan camp is a tough trek on foot and to lessen the stress on the orangutans, the helicopter is used but costing somewhere in the region of RM20,000 per trip to charter.

    Those who are interested in working with the orangutans can in fact opt for a 2 month programme, spending time at the Sepilok Rehab Centre as well as at the Nature Interpretation Centre of the Rasa Ria Resort at Kota Kinabalu. For more on pricing and the Orangutan project log into :

    2016 updates: 13 year old rehabilitant orangutans, Rosalinda and Ganang, have been released into the Tabin Reserve and are being closely monitored as part our Post Release Monitoring Programme (PRMP).

    This is excellent news and proves that the rehabilitation programme at Sepilok really does work.

    Malayan Sun Bears

    Not only is the centre a halfway house for displaced and orphaned orangutans, it is also a clinic and 'home' for other endangered animals like the Malayan Sun bear. Not much research has been done on these creatures and they may be dying out faster than we think - poachers kill them for their gallbladders - supposed medicinal remedy and also the paws are a delicacy in china and Taiwan . However, the Chinese have found a way of extracting bile from farmed bears. An estimated 5,000 bears are now farmed for their bile. More than 100 times the bile can be obtained by milking a live bear than by killing one.

    There are currently too many sunbears at the Sepilok Centre and unfortunately, they have no where to go except to the zoos. For more on sun bears and their last fight for existence, have a read at ;

  • For more on volunteering with the Malayan Sunbears:
  • 14 Day Volunteer at The Bornean Sub Bear Conservation Centre
  • 28 Days Sun Bear Assistant Volunteer Programme

  • Getting to Sepilok OrangUtan Rehab Centre & Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre:

    By Bus

    • From Sandakan Bus Terminal
  • Located behind the Centre Point Mall, opposite the jetty, take the bus marked "Batu 14 Sepilok". The bus takes 45 minutes and fares are RM 6. Let the driver know where you would like to be dropped off.
    • Buses run from Sandakan to Sepilok at 9am, 11:30am, 2pm and 5pm.
    • Buses run from Sepilok to Sandakan at 6:30am, 10:30am, 12:30pm and 4pm.
    • Regular buses, marked 14 or higher, also travel along that route but drops you at the turn-off to Jln Sepilok, 2.5km away from the centre

    By Taxi

    You can hire a taxi for a return trip for about RM100.00 negotiable. The distance between town and the Centre is about 23km.

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