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Seeing Orangutans in South-East Asia

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Orangutan in Leuser NP, Sumatra. Photo: Michaela Kupková 2001 Orangutan in Leuser NP, Sumatra. Photo: Michaela Kupková 2001
Orangutan in Leuser NP, Sumatra. Photo: Michaela Kupková 2001

The question of where to see orangutans in South East Asia has been asked so often that I have decided to write a standard post about it. I added some practical information that people often asked me about (like prices and volunteering possiblities), and repost it expanded with that so at least some of the information here should be new to most readers.

First you should decide whether you want to see wild orangutans or are happy with the more circus-like experience offered by the so-called "rehabilitation centres" (the accessible ones of which in fact exist to serve mass tourism much rather than to rehabilitate apes). As outlined below, I strongly argue in favour of seeing wild ones. The next decision is whether to visit Malaysia or Indonesia. Orangutans, both wild and "rehabilitant", can easily be seen in both countries. The main difference is that Malaysia is more tourist-oriented and therefore offers better facilities, while Indonesia is much cheaper and offers far greater scope for non-commercial, off the beaten track travel.


PLACES TO SEE WILD ORANGUTANS

It would seem so logical to me that people who come all the way to South-East Asia to see orangutans actually wish to see wild ones in their natural habitats like national parks and other reserves.
Actually there are more of these places than of "rehab centres", but since seeing the apes in the wild often involves more inconvenience like having to reach such reserves away from the cities, then having to walk in humid, muddy rainforest and actually spending time looking for the apes, most tourists seem to think it is too much trouble to bother. However, easy possiblities where you can count on seeing wild orangutans within a day or two without even having to walk also exist.
Some people also argue that wild orangutans should be left alone by tourists, though this is naively overlooking the fact the loggers destroying their habitat pose a far greater danger to wild orangutans than do tourists peeking at them from below. By visiting habitats of wild orangutans you will actually contribute to their continued preservation by demonstrating outside interest in them! This is especially true in Kalimantan, where the lack of attention actually seems to have encouraged illegal logging in many reserves.
Well, your options include the following:

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo)

Perhaps the most popular option, where wild orangutans are the easiest to see. Sadly the reason for this is that there is such a narrow strip of forest left sandwiched between the oil-palm plantations along the river that they just can't hide! That said, a range of other wildlife, notably crocodiles, proboscys monkeys and elephants are easy to see here too. And since most wildlife-viewing here is done from boats, this is one place where anyone (children, elderly or simply lazy visitors included) can see wild orangutans without having to walk in the forest and getting their feet muddy. Serious nature lovers however will probably enjoy other, more pristine and extensive reserves more.
The main tourist area is near the village of Sukau, which is where wildlife is easiest to see. While most visitors here go to expensive lodges (like the Sukau Rainforest Lodge) on a tour, Sukau can in fact be reached by public transport (5-10 RM) from a turn-off at the Sandakan - Lahad Datu road, and there are 2 cheap accomodation options in/near the village (a very basic 10 RM Rest House that can be booked via Karim's Coffee Shop, and the scenically located 20 RM Tomanggong B&B outside the village by the riverside). Boat rental can also be arranged independently in Sukau (from 40-60 RM/ride - not per person!), and the village is also a good base from which to visit the Gomantong Caves, that are surrounded by the last patch of primary forest in the area. I saw more orangutans there than along the river itself! This would in fact be the cheapest way to visit the Kinabatangan for independent travellers (especially for 2 or more people sharing the coast of boat-rides).
Instead, most budget travellers opt to visit one of two "Jungle Camps" further up the river, booked through guest houses near Sepilok. They are very basic but away from the crowds (though Uncle Tan's, the older one, can get crowded - go to the Jungle Sanctuary if that bothers you). However, wildlife is somewhat less plentiful than near Sukau, and if you only want to stay a day or two, their packages (from 150 RM for a 1 night stay with transport, food, accomodation and boat-rides, additional nights only 20 RM) also work out more expensive than going to Sukau independently.

Danum Valley Conservation Area (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo)

Probably the very best place in Malaysia to see wild orangutans in pristine habitat (though the forest outside Danum is logged). Apart from orangutans, it has just about the complete range of Bornean wildlife and great trail-systems.
It is relatively little visited as guidebooks tend to describe only the very expensive option there. That is Borneo Rainforest Lodge, costing from 200 USD/day. Fortunately, in the past years it has also been possible to stay at the nearby Danum Valley Field Centre, where costs are more reasonable (from 30 RM/day for "camping" - no tent needed, and you can cook your own meals to bypass the overpriced restaurant).
Both the Rainforest Lodge and the Field Centre have their offices in the Fajar Centre area in the nearby town of Lahad Datu, where both accomodation and transport to either can be booked.

Tabin Wildlife Reserve (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo)

This is another important area of lowland rainforest located near Lahad Datu. Like Danum, it is home to the complete range of Bornean wildlife. However, the forests here have been logged in the past and are mostly secondary, which makes Danum a more appealing option.
Accomodation is provided by the expensive Tabin Lodge, whose website is very inspiring. I haven't visited Tabin so I don't know if cheaper alternatives exist - ask at the Wildlife Department office in Fajar Centre in Lahad Datu, and post here what they say.

 

Batang Ai National Park (Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo)

The only place to see wild orangutans in Sarawak, it is a very underrated and undervisited park indeed, thanks to the fact the info on it in guidebooks like LP is misleadingly wrong, and the few upmarket tour-operators going there prefer to keep it their own domain, too.
Even Sarawak Tourism Board could tell us no useful information about visiting, so we had to find out the hard way!
You can reach the park by taking a bus from Kuching to Sri Aman or Lubuk Antu, then another one to the Batang Ai Reservoir. From where the bus stops, boats can be hired (ca.200RM) for the very scenic ride across the reservoir (passing several islands, one of which has the expensive Batang Ai Resort, still well outside the park) and upriver to the park entrance at Nanga Lubang Buaya, where there is a ranger post and 2 Iban longhouses. One of the longhouses has a guesthouse for drop-in tourists for just 15 RM, but remember to bring in all your food as there is none available at this very remote place! There are 4 trails in the park, but to attempt the 2 longer ones you would probably need to hire a ranger-guide (officially costing 11 RM/hour). Seeing orangutans here is more difficult - plan on staying several days. However even just the remote, unspoilt atmosphere and the gorgeous scenery alone would make the trip worthwhile!

Kutai National Park (East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)

This park could be Indonesia's answer to the Kinabatangan, where wild orangutans (an estimated 700 live here) are very easy to see and access is also very easy- yet visitors are very rare. Proboscys monkeys and gibbons are also easy to see here.
Unfortunately the forest itself, particularly the easily accessible parts, is badly devastated in the park, which is partly the reason why the wildlife is so easy to see here.
The park is just a few hours up the coastal road from the East Kalimantan capital of Samarinda. First visit the park office (Jl. Awang Long) in the town of Bontang to pick up your permit and the latest info on prices.
The road north of Bontang to Sangatta provides access to 3-4 different places you could visit.
Your first stop in the park could be Teluk Kaba on the coast (an hour's walk off the road), which has great board-walks through beautiful mangroves where you might see otters or monitor lizards. There is basic accomodation here, but the forest is devastated.
The next possible stop is the Sangkimah ranger post just off the Bontang-Sangatta road. It is located in some of the least damaged forest in the park, and has short trails to explore.
Then go on to Sangatta, where there are several cheap hotels. Here a boat must be hired to see proboscys monkeys dowstream from town (50.000 Rp), or to go upstream to reach the orangutan research station at Mentoko (150.000 Rp), which has the best trail-system in the park, and offers the best chances to see orangutans, hornbills, pheasants, etc. You may see these from the boat itself! If you want guides (not compulsory here), they cost 50.000/day here, too. Bring your food to any of the above places except Sangatta.
See the park's official homepage for more information, though unfortunately only the Indonesian version of it seems to be working currently.

Gunung Palung National Park (West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)

Just across the border from touristy Sarawak this place is as yet very little visited. In fact, apart from Danum it is probably the best park in Borneo! The trail-system and and the density of wildlife seen here is unparalelled. Gunung Palung's profile may rise now that it has been included in Lonely Planet's latest Indonesia guide.
The park is home to an estimed 2000-2500 orangutans - perhaps 10% of the world's total!
Several wild orangutans here have been habituated to observers by researchers who follow them daily, so they could usually lead you to one if you didn't find any on your own. Agile gibbons, maroon langurs, hornbills are all over the research area in greater numbers than anywhere else. The gateway to the park is the coastal town of Ketapang, where permits and guides must be arranged at park office (Jl. Kh. Wahid Hasyim 41/A) for a stay at the research centre at Cabang Panti, which is reached by a short bus-ride from the city, followed by a 20 km hike through partially logged forest. Ketapang can be reached by daily speedboats (6hrs) from the West Kalimantan capital of Pontianak.
Accomodation in the park is very basic, but costs only 20.000 Rp/day. You will also have to take a compulsory guide from the Ketapang office for 50.000 Rp/day, whom you shouldn't expect to be of any real use - but with trails usually marked every 50 metres, you can easily explore the area on your own anyway.
Sadly, this great park has in recent years been heavily encroached upon by illegal logging operations. The sooner you get there, the better! See the websites of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project and Balikpapan Orangutan Society's Gunung Palung page for more information.

Betung Kerihun National Park (West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)

A vast and remote reserve along the border with Sarawak, this park has no visitor facilities as yet, but those ready for adventure could visit it by hiring boats and guides in the surrounding Dayak villages. Start by visiting the park office in the town of Putussibau (Jl. Komodor Yos Sudarso 130) where you can get your permit and advice. The parts of the park nearest to Putussibau could be reached along the Sibau and Mendalam rivers, however the area richest in wildlife, and also supporting the highest density of orangutans, is along the upper reaches of the Embaloh river and its tributaries. To get there take a bus from Putussibau towards Badau, but get off at the junction for the Iban longhouse village of Sadap. There you can hire a boat (from 500.000 Rp) and guides to explore upriver. You will also have to take all your own food and camping equipment - though if you are not fussy, basic stuff could be found in Sadap.

Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park (West & Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)

Another remote and very scenic reserve, this park straddles the border between two provinces and includes the highest mountain in the southern half of Borneo: Bukit Raya (2278 m). Despite its remoteness, it is easily accessible, and offers excellent (though tough) hiking on hills covered with beautiful primary rainforest. While the orangutans here are elusive (plan on staying several days to have a chance to spot one), there is lots of other wildlife like agile gibbons, maroon langurs and hornbills.
First visit the park office in the West Kalimantan town of Sintang (Jl. Dr. Wahidin S. No.75) for permits and information, then take a bus to Nanga Pinoh, from where public riverboats travel up the Melawi river, providing access to the park. The area with most orangutans is along the Ella river beyond Belaban village, where you can find accomodation and guides among the local Limai Dayaks. Those wishing to climb Bukit Raya should go by boat to Jelundung via Serawai.

Danau Sentarum National Park (West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)

This newly declared park protects the largest natural lake system in Borneo. Its swamp forests are also home to orangutans and other wildlife. There are are no visitor facilities as such, but you may still be able to stay at the former research centre at Bukit Tekenang. Access is by boat from the town of Semitau.
Since this park has no office yet, you should call at the office of Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park in Sintang for information.

Tanjung Puting National Park (Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)

This most famous (and overrated) of Kalimantan parks covers 4000 sq kms of peat swamp along the coast. While it was established to protect wild orangutans, those are very rarely seen here by visitors who will generally only see "ex-captives" at Camp Leakey. Details are given under "rehabilitation centres" below.
This is also a good park to see proboscys monkeys though.

Gunung Leuser National Park (Sumatra, Indonesia)

The only park with a wild population of Sumatran orangutans. Most tourists get no further than Bukit Lawang on the SE edge, but those who wish to see wild orangutans usually go on to Ketambe/Gurah, reachable by bus via Kutacane from Medan. At Gurah there is a good trail-system in hilly rainforest with cheap guest house accomodation and guides who are at least for now less ferocious than those at Bukit Lawang. Wild orangutans are easy to see, though other wildlife, apart from primates, is scarce. With the park being huge there are obviously other access points too, but Gurah is the easiest and as good as any. Note that the Gurah area (but NOT Bukit Lawang) is in Aceh province and therefore officially off-limits currently. If you still wish to try and reach it, do so at your own risk! It is probably better to stick to the parts of the park lying in North Sumatra province until restrictions on travel to Aceh are lifted.

Other nature reserves in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo)

There are more protected areas in Kalimantan where wild orangutans are still found - including the Gunung Niyut and Muara Kaman nature reserves.
Info on these parks (plus many more, including the ones detailed above) can be found at the Nature Reserves of Kalimantan website where I have also contributed much of my practical information.

"REHABILITATION CENTRES"

These places were originally set up to raise orphaned/captured baby orangutans and teach them live in nature again. A noble idea certainly - but unfortunately a very naive one that doesn't work, it turned out.
Most orangutans raised by humans have never learned to fend for themselves. Fully-grown adult males and mothers with babies still showing up to be fed regularly are the most obvious testimony of this.
And where many such tame orangutans have been relesed into a habitat occupied by wild ones, the latter were effectively eliminated by the newcomers who outcompeted them for food in the area and introduced human diseases.
The fact that these centres have also become major tourist attractions has also contributed to their failure. At some it is even possible for visitors to touch or feed the apes, in complete contradiction to the stated aim of "rehabilitation". The orangutans in these situations are also constantly exposed to human diseases. In fact these centres have attracted so much criticism in the past years that all but one (Sepilok) of those regularly visited by tourists have officially stopped the rehabilitation work altogether and now ONLY exist to serve the lucrative tourism industry that has grown around them - though this is not loudly advertised!
Another thing one should consider is that visiting "rehabilitation centres" rather than natural habitats probably undermines conservationists' arguments that preserving large areas of rainforest is important to attract eco-tourism. Loggers can rightly counter that far more tourists visit rehab sites where tame apes are seen in a tiny patch of forest, than do large conservation areas where wild ones live. The high profile these centres have also tends to divert attention from the far more important issue, which is preserving the wild orangutan populations and their habitats.
Of course I know that no matter what I write, "rehab centres" will always remain popular with the crowds, so here is the list of them, with a few thoughts on each one:

Sepilok (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo)

The only centre open to tourists that still insists it is doing rehabilitation, and the most popular of all. It is very easy to reach from Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan, and there are varied acomodation options nearby. It tends to be very crowded with visitors (100 tourists screeming and flashing cameras at half dozen apes isn't unusual). It has a mere 43 sq km forest around it, where there is little/no(?) evidence of wild orangutans despite claims that the "orphans" are rehabilitated into the "surrounding wild population".

Semenggok (Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo)

Long cited as the worst of the centres where apes were kept in tiny cages and there is only the most minimal of forest patches to release them into, Semenggok finally closed as "rehabilitation centre" a few years ago (that job being handed over to the Matang Wildlife Centre in nearby Kubah NP) but remains open for public viewing. It is an easy day-trip from Kuching and there is no reason to stay longer.

 

Bukit Lawang (North Sumatra, Indonesia)

The more popular and accessible of the Indonesian centres, it has long been given over to mass-tourism. Unlike the two Malaysian centres, it is situated on the fringes of a huge national park which is home to wild orangutans. However, tourism (especially the feeding of apes on jungle-treks) made rehabilitation work here meaningless long ago, and a few years ago Bukit Lawang was also declared closed as a "rehabilitation centre", with its official staus now as a "viewing centre" existing purely to serve tourism.
Only 3 hours from the North Sumatran capital of Medan by bus, it had until recently about 100 different losmens/hotels and just as many eager guides that pestered every visitor to go on highly overpiced "jungle treks". That changed drastically when a huge flood in late 2003 virtually wiped out the entire village, killing many people and destroying most accomodation. Nevertheless the village was rebuilt quickly, and several new guest-houses have also opened. However with visitor numbers having plumetted, those who have gone to Bukit Lawang recently complained that they had to endure extra agressive sales tactics by would be guides desperate for business.

Camp Leakey (Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)

Originally started as a centre for research on wild orangutans, made famous by Birute Galdikas, it also became another rehabilitation centre. Located in Tanjung Puting National Park near the twin coastal towns of Pangkalanbun/Kumai (easily reached from Java by air or Pelni ships).
Once again, Galdikas' approach to "rehabilitating" orangutans into an area already occupied by a wild population has attracted so much criticizm that even this place no longer takes in new rehabilitants (100 of whom are now kept in Galdikas' backyard in nearby Pasir Panjang village technically illegally). Orangutans already "rehabilitated" still live at the centre and readily show up to be fed and photographed.
Despite what guidebooks or tour-operators claim, don't expect to see any wild ones though - when I was there the Indonesian staff discreetly admitted they had not seen a single wild orangutan in the area for a month!
Due to its relative remoteness from main tourist routes this centre at least feels less commercialized and circus-like than the ones mentioned above, though both backpackers and expensive package tours (run in affiliation with Galdikas/OFI, and often euphemistically called "study-tours" or "volunteer-programs") both visit regularly.
Before visiting the place, you are supposed to get a permit from the Tanjung Puting National Park office in Pangkalanbun (Jl. Malijo No.3). You may want to read Galdikas' beautifully written Reflections of Eden about the early years of Camp Leakey, but also Linda Spalding's disturbing A Dark Place in the Jungle to learn about what has happened here later.

Wanariset (East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)

Now, if you found my comments on the above places disheartening, here is something different!
Having learned from previous mistakes, this new centre was set up by The Balikpapan Orangutan Society with a radically different approach. Here the well-being of the hundreds of orangutans cared for has the priority over their lucrative tourism potential.
As explained on its website, to minimize exposure to human contact and possible infections, Wanariset is off-limits to would-be visitors whether they wish to come as volunteers or as tourists! Without a very convincing reason or some personal contacts, you can only see a visitor centre. But if you are curious, it offers an "orangutan-friendly" virtual tour of the centre! Another important difference is that the orangutans raised here are released into areas without existing wild populations, thus preventing any harmful impact.
Of course the exclusion of visitors means that this centre has a much lower profile among the public, but if a rehabilitation centre ever deserved support, this is the one!

VOLUNTEERING

Several people have asked me about possiblities for volunteering in the "rehabilitation centres".
Well, the bottom line is that because in Indonesia or Malaysia hard-working locals can be hired for as little as 1-3 USD/day to do manual work, there is certainly no REAL need for Western workforce.
However, recognizing that many rich Westerners wish such an alternative holiday, a few agencies (including OFI itself) offer "volunteer-programs" at rehabilitation centres. For paying a handsome sum you will get the opportunity to get even closer to cute apes and get those even more impressive photos and tales for your friends at home.
Just don't fool yourself into thinking you were actually doing anything needed/useful there - at best a fraction of the money you paid might trickle down to conservation, though you will never really know.

BUT if you are GENUINELY serious about doing REAL help and don't insist on petting/photo opportunities in "rehab centres", the Sumatran Orangutan Society actually offers volunteering possiblities worldwide - note that these don't involve "hands-on" work with orangutans though!

FURTHER READING

Websites

The Indonesian Nature Conservation Database is a great source of information on the biodiversity and conservation issues of Indonesia, and also has detailed information on the nature reserves of both Kalimantan and Sumatra.
The National Parks of Malaysia is more basic and tourist-oriented.
The Balikpapan Orangutan Society is probably the most credible organization working on saving the orangutans of Borneo - see also BOS' other website.
The Sumatran Orangutan Society does a similar job in Sumatra.

 

Books

Our Vanishing Relative: The Status of Wild Orangutans at the Close of the Twentieth Century is the best, most up to date reference on all aspects of orangutan conservation, including a rather critical review of "rehabilitation" efforts.
The National Parks and Other Wild Places of Indonesia is the best overall reference for ecotourists planning to visit Indonesia, though its coverage of Kalimantan's reserves is poor.
The National Parks and Other Wild Places of Malaysia is a similar and more complete coverage of Malaysia's reserves.
Southeast Asia Wildlife covers the major reserves of both countries - and more.
The Ecology of Kalimantan is a great reference on the ecology, flora, fauna, conservation issues and nature reserves of the entire island of Borneo.
The Ecology of Sumatra provides similar data on Sumatra.

ANY FEEDBACK?

Prices in particular may well have changed since my last visits to these places. Let me know if you have more recent info!
I am particularly interested in hearing the experiences of those who get to the rarely visited national parks in Kalimantan!
OTOH, the previous version of this post has also attracted some emotional and naive criticizm by former volunteer-tourists disagreeing with my comments on the rehab centres they "worked" at.
While I don't mind INFORMED criticizm, please consider that I based what I say on over a year spent in Borneo (plus many months in Sumatra), having visited all but two of the reserves described (and many others) myself, and speaking to the local staff (usually in Indonesian/Malay) working in them.

Note: László Wagner is a Hungarian traveller, focusing on Southeast Asia (particularly Indonesia). This article originally appeared in the Thorn Tree travel forum. It has been posted here with prior permission of the author. Tenggara will publish Czech version of this article shortly.