Sepilok: the best chance to see sun bears and orangutans in Sabah

The entrance to Sepilok's sun bear and orangutan centres

Sepilok located 26km from the seaside town of Sandakan may be your best chance to see orangutans and sun bears in Sabah. Tropical rainforests are probably one of the most difficult environments to find wildlife with any sort of ease. Due to the multi-level structure of equatorial forest unless something is right under your nose it can be incredibly difficult to find. Even when something is right in front of you camouflage adds another strategy in predator avoidance. If a group of gibbons are swinging through the treetops, above the canopy, although you may hear them as they gracefully swing from branch to branch they can often be difficult to find amongst the tangled mess of the forest. This can often make for a frustrating experience initially but makes it all the more worth it when you come across a mature male orangutan that just so happens to be sitting at eye level low in the forest.

A juvenile orangutan spotted next to the canopy walk at the Rainforest Discovery Centre in the early morning

The reality is that if you want to see any substantial number of wildlife species in the forest it is going to require a good deal of time in good quality forest where wildlife populations are healthy. There is however, another way that does not require spending days walking in the jungle instead ticking off a lot of the major wildlife draw cards and even finding wildlife you are unlikely to see in the wild within a couple of days. 

Nearby the coastal town of Sandakan in Sabah’s southeast is a place called Sepilok. Sepilok is home to the sun bear and orangutan rehabilitation centres and the rainforest discovery centre. The reason why I say there is another way to see some wildlife is because both the orangutan and sun bear conservation centres guarantee sightings of the respective animals that they are rehabilitating as they are living in a captive to semi-wild existence. This kind of wildlife experience isn’t for everyone, personally I would much prefer to spend days in the jungle looking for wildlife in its natural environment, however, I must say I was highly impressed with the experience on offer in Sepilok. If you are short on time and want to maximise your experience Sepilok is definitely worth the stopover.

The Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre

The entrance to the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC)

Probably one of the more difficult animals to see in the Bornean jungle is the Malayan sun bear, with few left in the wild and their extremely shy nature it is incredibly tricky to spot them in the wild. The Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) was established as a sun bear rescue and rehabilitation facility. Sun bears that have been rescued from captivity are housed at the facility so that they can be reintroduced into the wild. In some cases where bears have only had interactions with humans prior to rescue they have become so habituated that their chance of release into the wild is greatly diminished.

The sun bears (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus) found in Borneo are different to those in other parts of Asia.

The story of the bear in the close up photo in this article is one that needed to be told as it delves into the heart of the reason why BSBCC is so important. This bear was taken from the wild, likely from its mother at an age so young that his eyes were not even open yet. The first time he opened his eyes it was human faces that he saw, not that of his mother or any other bear for that matter. He soon came to rely on his human carers growing up thinking he was more human with no real understanding of how to be a bear. This deeply imprinted interaction with humans means that now he craves interaction with people. If he was released into the wild he would quickly come into contact with humans for lack of knowledge to avoid humans and would probably be killed in fear of him being a danger. For bears in this situation it means that they will spend the rest of their life at the centre as it would be far too dangerous for the bears if they were released into the wild. This bear now causes self harm as it means he will be given veterinary treatment and now associates the self harm with an opportunity to interact with humans. The situation for each and every bear at the centre is different and usually never simple to resolve.

Elevated boardwalks give a great perspective on the display enclosures, which are naturally forested allowing the bears to live as they would in the wild.

The site includes a number of forest enclosures that have been build around remnant jungle so that the bears can live in an environment that simulates their natural habitat. The bears are free to roam around their enclosures and climb trees, which they are incredibly good at. Out of the 43 bears at the centre it is expected that half of these will eventually be released into the wild. For the remaining bears they are provided a safe place to live with plenty of food and love from the committed staff.

Sun bears are great at climbing trees reaching the canopy without effort thanks to their sharp, powerful claws.

The centre focuses on four main areas welfare and rehabilitation, education, research and conservation action. Orphaned or ex-captive bears receive poor treatment living in unnatural environments with inadequate diets and no enrichment for stimulation, and are often kept in cages far too small to allow proper exercise and mobility. The centre provides these bears with a better life and a chance to return to the wild. Wong Siew Te is the mastermind behind the project having dedicated his life to the plight of the sun bear. His passion for the bears is inspirational, if you get the opportunity to talk with him don’t pass it up as he is a wealth of knowledge.

Visitors are able to watch the sun bears from the observation platform that surrounds the display enclosures.

The centre is set up with an elevated platform walkway that goes around the display enclosures. The best thing about BSBCC is that the site was originally forest and has been maintained so that the bears can climb tall dipterocarp trees within their enclosure allowing them to behave much the same way as they would in the wild. The bears are also amazing climbers, I watched as a bear effortlessly climbed its way to the top of a tree where it proceeded to stretch out on a branch and fall asleep. 

The best time of day to visit the centre is during feeding times when the bears are more active. The crowds can get a little heavy around this time so if you prefer to experience the place with fewer people stick around until things get a bit quieter between feeding sessions and you will practically have the place to yourself.

The cream-coloured giant squirrel (Ratufa affinis) can be found in the canopy as it forages for food.

As this is forest habitat for the other species of wildlife in the area it is not uncommon to find long-tailed macaques, many species of squirrels including the giant squirrel, a myriad of birds along with reptiles such as dracos (flying lizards), skinks and snakes utilising the forest. This area not only provides a refuge for the rescued bears but a sanctuary of sorts for the wild animals of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. 

It is also important to understand that by visiting the centre and paying your entrance fee your money goes directly back into the project. International visitor fees almost cover all associated costs with feeding the bears and maintaining the facility. The first project of its kind in Malaysia the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre deserves the support and backing it receives. 

For more information on BSBCC make sure to take a look at their website to find out more information about the centre, volunteer opportunities and how you can help out.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

The entrance to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) is the place to be if you really want to guarantee a sighting of Bornean orangutans. By far Borneo’s most charismatic and recognisable creature is the Bornean orangutan and is a major tourist draw card for Sabah. This amazing facility is set within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve opposite the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. The forest setting gives the orangutans the freedom to come and go returning to the forest when they like. There is a feeding platform where you can see mothers and babies, youngsters and the occasional adolescent male orangutan come to eat and interact.

A female orangutan feeding at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Again this is not for everyone, if you’re like me roughing it in the jungle makes a wild orangutan sighting all the more exhilarating. At SORC you get to witness animal behaviour that is very difficult to see in the wild and also interactions that are even rarer to see in the wild as orangutans are seldom found congregating in the forest.

During feeding time the orangutans swing down from the trees along ropes to the feeding platform.

The nursery area is a jungle gym of sorts that has been built for mothers with young babies. A series of ropes, tyres and wooden structures make the perfect place for young orangutans to play together and learn how to swing around to better equip them for a life in the forest. Nothing cuter than a baby orangutan right! 

Orangutans that have been displaced or orphaned by logging, oil palm expansion, illegal hunting or being kept as pets that are lucky enough to end up at SORC are trained to live to survive in the wild. As soon as they orangutans are ready for release they are returned to the forest so that they can live a normal life as a wild orangutan.

A juvenile orangutan manages to sneak away with a mouth full of bananas

Animals that are suitable to be released from both the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre are released into the Tabin Wildlife reserve. Tabin has been identified as a suitable location to introduce these animals providing their specialised habitat and dietary requirements. 

For more details on pricing, opening and feeding times, along with directions getting there visit the Sabah Tourism website

Rainforest Discovery Centre

Observation towers along the canopy walk at the Rainforest Discovery Centre give you a bird's-eye perspective of the surrounding forest.

For me this is one of my favourite places to visit in Borneo. Also connected to the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve the Rainforest Discover Centre (RDC) is a great place for birding and mammal watching. There are walking trails to explore that take you into the heart of the forest with well maintained, easy to follow paths. If you only have time for a quick visit the canopy walk is absolutely stunning! This giant steel structure peels off from the end of the path taking you gradually up into the canopy structure. For several hundred metres the canopy walkway extends into the forest giving you a view of the emergent trees that stick out above the canopy and provide a real sense of the layers that make up the rainforest. Observation towers give you an even higher perspective of the forest and a good standpoint for spotting wildlife.

The observation towers at the Rainforest Discover Centre start at ground level and take you up to the top of the canopy.

If you want to go in for an early morning bird or an evening spotlight the canopy walk is left open after hours, just be sure to pay your entry fee when the ticket booth is staffed. It is not uncommon to hear pittas calling, see sun birds flitting about picking off insects and the resident Wallace’s hawk eagles returning to their nest. In the evening around dusk the giant red flying squirrels start to become active jumping between branches on trees and gliding around the canopy. I was lucky enough to see one glide right across the canopy for at least 200 metres.

The resident Wallace's hawk eagle devours its prey at eye level and was easily observed from the canopy walk.

A walk to the Sepilok Giant is a must and is situated about a kilometre from the entrance, it is well signed and easy to follow the path out to it. This giant dipterocarp sits on a ridge towering over its other forest counterparts simply dwarfing the trees around it. Sabah has recently become the site of the world’s largest tropical trees with the tallest reaching just over 94-metres in height. It’s probably a good idea to take one of the provided maps and enough water with you incase you want to explore some of the side trails to extend your walk. The Sepilok Giant is almost an ecosystem in itself, stingless bees buzz around the base of the tree where they have made their home in hollow sections of the roots. Just about every hidy hole, leaf and branch offers refuge for tiny insects expertly camouflaging themselves against the different textures.

Itineraries and Accommodation

There are a few places to stay in Sepilok depending on your budget, our suggestion would be to stay in Sepilok at the Sepilok Nature Resort or at the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort. If you would like a guided day trip at Sepilok our one day Sepilok Sojourn will make sure you cover every bit of Sepilok in the shortest amount of time possible with a private driver/guides. 

It can take 30-40 minutes driving from Sandakan to Sepilok so it could work out more convenient staying in Sepilok, especially if you want to wake up for an early morning bird. Sandakan is a quirky seaside town worth a visit, the San Da Gen Kopitiam, a local coffee shop experience that puts a creative spin on some of the region’s most iconic tastes is a must. You can’t leave without tasting the salted egg croissants that are baked fresh daily. The Nak Hotel is also conveniently located next door for a quirky cosy place to stay if you decide to stick around Sandakan. 

For more accommodation options and other destinations to visit while you are in the area you can find out more info here.

The Sepilok Giant, a 60-metre tall tree in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve

If you are short on time or if you are looking for a more relaxed easy approach to seeing the Bornean jungle and the wildlife that is contained within Sepilok would definitely be a great place for you to come and visit. By supporting the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre & Rainforest Discover Centre your tourism dollar is going directly back into conservation by supporting incredibly worthy causes that are working to ensure the long term survival of some of Borneo’s most critically endangered wildlife. Come and see for yourself, you will not be disappointed.

Photos By: Nicholas Heard & Charles Ryan

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