Malaysia. Inside the centre that rehabilitates orangutans, in the heart of Borneo

Hundreds of orangutans have been saved and reintroduced into the wild over the past 50 years. They arrive at the centre as orphaned animals and leave as adults ready to live in the forest again.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is located at the edge of the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve in Sabah, Malaysia. Here, orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) orphaned because of hunting and habitat loss have been saved, treated and rehabilitated since 1964.


Young orangutan resting © Rudi Bressa/LifeGate


All around the centre vegetation is thick and the forest shows itself in all its magnificence. After all, this is Borneo, one of our planet’s most important lungs. Trees’ foliage towers above everything, forming a green and impenetrable wall. Here lies the reserve, home to 60 to 80 orangutans who will be reintroduced into the wild after a period of rehabilitation. The 43-square-kilometre-wide reserve is also home to macaques, proboscis monkeys, and Malaysian bears.

Rehabilitated orangutans are reintroduced into the forest

The first time you come into contact with an animal you’ve only seen and studied in books, you’re left bewildered. Its face, movements and gazes are extremely similar to humans’, and when a 2-year-old female orangutan kicks because she doesn’t want to return to her designated area, she looks just like a kid complaining that they don’t want to go home. It’s no coincidence that from an evolutionary and biological point of view these primates and Homo sapiens are closely linked. Currently, the centre is home to about 20 baby orangutans (1 to 2 years old). “We receive young individuals, as the older ones often can’t recover properly,” says Pakee Raj, 25, one of the centres’ two veterinarians.


© Rudi Bressa/LifeGate


“Most of the animals are brought here because their mother was killed or because they were abandoned as she is no longer able to look after them”. Baby orangutans live with their mothers up to the age of 8, while learning to get food, build nests and climb trees. Despite the fact that orangutans are a protected species, “baby orangutans are captured, domesticated and kept as pets,” says Pakee. Therefore, the centre helps them survive in the wild and trains them until they fully recover their relationship with the forest.


“We create groups made of 4-5 individuals, where older ones teach the younger ones,” the veterinary explains. “Once the rehabilitation process, which could last up to 8 years, has ended we reintroduce orangutans about 45 kilometres from the centre, later releasing them in the wild for good a hundred kilometres away”.


vet orang
Pakee Raj, the rehabilitation centre’s vet © Rudi Bressa / LifeGate

Positive signs

Over the past few years, orangutans arriving to the centre have been fewer and fewer. This is a sign that conservation policies, education and awareness campaigns along with a crackdown carried out by the Malaysian government actually work. Since the centre first opened hundreds of orangutans have been reintroduced into the forest. “Some of them sometimes return, but just to eat together with their fellows,” says Pakee.

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