A Luncheon Visit To Sabah's Sepilok Orang Utan Centre

 Meet the Jungle Man of Borneo

Join Margaret Deefholts, as she visits the Jungle Man of Borneo, the Orang Utan,  via this Magic Carpet Journal

Orang Utan up tree in Sabah's Sepilok Rehabilitation Center

Dropping in for lunch at the Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre

Photo courtesy of Margaret Deefholts

From the window of the Malaysia Airlines plane, the rivers of east Sabah look like coiled brown ropes, and somewhere in the thick mangrove swamps bordering them, is an inhabitant of Borneo, which I have travelled half way across the globe to find. The Orang-Utan, (meaning “Jungle Man” in Malay) remains one of the most appealing of all the great apes, and this my once–in–a–lifetime opportunity to see these primates in their natural habitat.

Al, my tourist guide, meets me at Sipadan airport. “Sorry to rush you,” he says, “but we must dash out to the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre if we want to catch the Orang-Utan lunch meeting at two o’clock.” I picture a group of anthropoids sitting around a board room table nibbling cheese and crackers. As it turns out the meal is milk and bananas, and the table is large wooden platform suspended by ropes from the branches of a towering Belian tree.

Orang utan comes to lunch in Sabah's Sepilok Orang utan Rehabilitation Center

Orang-Utan Restaurant

Photo courtesy of M. Maxine George

Several visitors are gathered at the viewing site, but there is no sign yet of the main guests. Meanwhile, the surrounding jungle is alive with sound and activity: a pheasant screams somewhere in the dense foliage, and a Great Hornbill with a yellow curved beak, surveys us haughtily from his perch on a nearby tree. Then, as a rustle of anticipation sweeps through our group, a female Orang-Utan with a teeny baby clinging to her, leaps onto the feeding deck. The baby stares at the crowd through enormous eyes; mum squats on the platform and gives us a bored once-over. Almost on cue, several others arrive—one of them slides down a pole just behind me, and poses coyly for my camera, while another male plays to the audience with an acrobatic performance along an overhanging vine. “That’s Patrick,” Al says. “He’s maybe around eighteen years old.”

When the forest ranger arrives with a pail of milk and several bags of bananas, Patrick hot-foots it over to grab two bunches of bananas. The ranger smacks his hand gently, and retrieves one lot of fruit out of his grasp. Patrick retreats smirking and makes short work of his share of lunch. A moment later, he’s back to pick up a plastic mug and help himself to a generous scoop of milk. The crowd chuckles, the officer scolds him loudly, and Patrick hangs his head like a naughty schoolboy. His eyes, nonetheless, are unrepentant, and he keeps glancing at us as if to say, “Hey, watch me now, folks, I’m going for the big one!” He does.

Young orang utan relaxes after lunch at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre

Relaxing after lunch

Photo courtesy of M. Maxine George


The officer is at the other end of the platform shooing away an uninvited long-tailed macaque, and Patrick lopes over, picks up the entire bucket of milk and almost succeeds in draining it, by the time the ranger returns. This time, in response to the officer’s indignant holler, Patrick bestows a “thanks buddy” pat on his benefactor’s shoulder, leaps onto an overhanging branch and, swinging arm over arm, disappears into the jungle.

Patrick is one of approximately fifty Orang-Utans at the Sepilok Centre, who are currently in various stages of integration into the wild. Although he is perfectly capable of foraging for food in the jungle, he occasionally returns to the feeding platform either because it’s an easy meal, or because he enjoys his little games with the forest ranger, whom he has known all his life. This is typical behaviour but as time goes on, he will move further afield, find a mate and in a couple of years when he no longer shows up at the feeding area, he will be considered a fully rehabilitated animal.


Waiting in line for lunch at Sabah's Sepilok Orang Utan Center

Just hanging around waiting for lunch

Photo courtesy of M. Maxine George

We stroll back to the main Rehabilitation Centre complex in time to watch an absorbing documentary about the habits of these gentle primates, and the efforts being made to integrate them back into their natural environment. Thanks to the aggressive enforcement of a national conservation program by the Malaysian and Indonesian wildlife departments, the Orang-Utan is no longer on the list of the world’s endangered species (they number around 25,000-30,000 across Borneo), but the balancing act between commercial and plantation development vis-à-vis preservation of forest wilderness areas, continues to be a critical issue in the struggle for survival by these shy, ginger-furred giants of Borneo.


By Margaret Deefholts

If you enjoy Margaret's writing you may be interested to know that her book "Haunting India," is coming out this fall.  The book will be in stores this fall.  For further information check the contact on our links page. 



Getting There:

Malaysian Airlines operates regular flights between Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu (and thence to other domestic city terminals throughout Malaysia). The airline has a well-deserved reputation for efficient service and excellent hospitality.

Where to Stay:

The Sabah Hotel (3 stars) in Sandakan offers visitors good value for comfortably appointed rooms, a range of recreational facilities and two restaurants which serve Chinese, Malay, Indian and Continental cuisine.

A banana feast for orang utan at Sabah's Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center

A feast fit for the king of the jungle

Photo courtesy of Margaret Deefholts

Tel: 60-89-213-299 Fax: 60-89-271-271

The Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre

This is located 25 km north-east of Sandakan, and is part of a 43 sq. km. tropical lowland rainforest sanctuary, which is home to a variety of birds, insects, reptiles and animals in addition to the Orang-Utan and the now rare two-horned Asian rhinoceros. Hiking trails lead through the forest, and although animal sightings are not guaranteed, the diversity of tropical trees, bushes, vines and flowers, makes this a rewarding excursion. The natural history museum at the centre is well worth browsing through, and it is recommended (but not essential) that visitors watch the documentary film before proceeding to the Orang-Utan feeding platform as this greatly enhances the whole experience.

Feeding times: 10 a.m. and 2.30 p.m.

Entrance: RM 10.00 (CA$4.00)

Video camera charge: RM10.00

Two Orang Utans wait for lunch at Malaysia's Sepilok Orang Utan Center


Milk and bananas anyone?

Photo courtesy of M. Maxine George

Lunch time at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center in Sabah

Lunch time at the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre

Photo courtesy of Margaret Deefholts




















For further information about Malaysia contact:

Tourism Malaysia (Canada)                   

830 Burrard St., Vancouver, B.C. V6Z 2K4

Phone: 1-888-689-6872  Fax: 011 603 746 5637

Malaysia Airlines

Reservations: 1-800-552-9264



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Last Updated on January 24, 2005 by M. Maxine George editor.
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