Located some 25kms west of the town of Sandakan, on the northeast coast of Sabah, Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre was founded in 1964 with the aim of rehabilitating orphaned and confiscated orangutans.

Today somewhere between 60 and 80 wild orangutans live in the reserve, and around 25 young orphaned orangutans are housed in the centre’s nurseries, cared for by highly trained and motivated staff. The centre occasionally provides treatment for other animals, including sun bear, gibbon, Sumatran rhino and the odd elephant.

Sepilok consists of 43sqkms on the edge of Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. During a visit you will learn about the programme of re-adjustment to the wild and see a daily feeding session. The centre supplements the diet of recently rehabilitated orangutans with milk and bananas. This additional food is deliberately designed to be monotonous in order to encourage the animals to forage for themselves. Although the education of both local people and visitors is one of the centre’s key objectives, this is never allowed to interfere with the rehabilitation process, so visitors are restricted to walkways and are not allowed to approach or handle the apes. However on occasion the orangutans themselves are seemingly either unaware of this rule, or reluctant to obey it!

In the wild, infant orangutans remain with their mothers for up to six years while learning the skills necessary to survive in the forest – the most important of which is climbing. The centre uses a buddy system – in which a young animal is paired with an older one – to replace a mother’s teaching and help pass on the requisite skills.

The creation of reserves such as Kabili-Sepilok reduces the impact of deforestation on orangutans, and as a result fewer young apes fall victim to the now-illegal trade in pets. Young animals are frequently caught while logging or forest clearance is taking place, or captured by poachers who may even slaughter the adults to get them. In captivity young orangutans often fall sick or suffer neglect, or even cruelty. Some individuals raised as pets can never return to the wild, however others can benefit from the costly process of rehabilitation, which may take as long as seven years. The Malaysian Government has outlawed the practice of illegal trading in orangutans, and imposes stiff prison sentences on anyone who is caught keeping an orangutan as a pet.

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