Get to Know Borneo’s Endangered Wildlife at Sepilok
Situated at the very edge of the lush 4,294-hectare Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, the small town of Sepilok takes its wildlife conservation works seriously. Extreme deforestation in the 60s and 80s for logging and plantations respectively have destroyed a significant part of Borneo’s pristine lowland rainforests. As the flora and fauna lose their habitat, their numbers dwindled at an alarming rate. Sepilok’s many research centres and animal sanctuaries aim to protect what is left of the forest and replenish it while providing a safe haven for its wildlife.
Just 25 kilometres out of Sandakan, the former capital city of Sabah, it is relatively easy to get to Sepilok town. By road, you can reach this town in just 30 minutes from Sandakan Airport. The best option is to get a taxi at the airport which is cheap and convenient.
From Sandakan city, regular buses leave the city centre four times a day to Sepilok at 9:00 and 11:30 in the morning, then at 2:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon. Depending on traffic, it takes about 45 minutes to get to Sepilok by road.
Sandakan city is accessible by a 6-hour bus ride from Kota Kinabalu. Flights into Sandakan Airport are available on Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia from Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur, Tawau, and Kudat.
When to Go
Sepilok and its tourist destinations are accessible all year round. The year is divided into the wet season from November to March, and the dry season from April to October. Although traveling during the dry season might be more convenient thanks to less rain, the weather tends to be uncomfortably hot and animals prefer to take shelter from the heat in the dense forest. During the wet season, some places might be flooded and certain parts of the destinations are closed off for safety purposes.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
The first of its kind in the world, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was established more than half a century ago to save orangutans that have been uprooted from their homes. Due to their high intelligence, orangutans are very attractive in the illegal animal trading industry. Poachers sell them at lucrative prices to private owners and wildlife parks who use these primates to entertain their guests. Rescued baby orangutans are taught to forage, climb and fend for themselves for years at the rehabilitation centre before returning them back to the forest.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is open daily. Feeding times are at 10 am and 3 pm every day. This is the best time to visit the centre as you are almost guaranteed to see at least one orangutan. Most of the time, there are young orangutans at the nursery, which is now open to the public from 9 to 11 am and then from 2 to 4 pm. You can view these bright animals learn forest survival skills through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. You are not allowed to bring in any food, drinks, or bags into the facility. However, you will be provided with a locker near the ticket collection entrance at no extra charge to store your belongings.
Animals in the rehabilitation centre roam around freely within the facility and the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. However, tourists are only allowed to explore on boardwalks. Although there are a few forest trails available, you will need to obtain a special permit to hike them. It is very likely that you can get very close to the orangutans, though it is wise to stay a safe distance from them. As a precaution, you should not stare them in the eyes as this may be seen as a sign of aggression.
There is a small cafe that sells local food and snacks at a reasonable price right outside the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. A well-maintained and air-conditioned public toilet is also available outside the centre for tourists. Proceeds from the sales of entrance tickets and merchandise at the facility’s souvenir shop are reinvested back to further their efforts on rehabilitating more orangutans.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC)
BSBCC is an NGO that strives to preserve the world’s smallest bear species. Being the least well-known of all bears, the sun bears are classified as vulnerable, facing threats from deforestation, poaching, and illegal pet trades. The BSBCC is the only facility in the world dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating these extraordinarily cute bears.
The conservation centre is small but it has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 2008. The bears are kept in different forest enclosures that are open to public viewing daily from 9 am to 3:30 pm. Very much well-managed, staff walking around the boardwalks carrying and offering telescopes for tourists to get a better look at the bears is a common sight. At the same time, the staff at BSBCC also actively engages visitors to better educate them about the plight of the sun bears.
Sun bears spend most of their time on trees. Although solitary in nature, the bears have formed hierarchical groups within their dwellings at the BSBCC. They are most active when the air is cool and can be seen playing with one another on treetops. On hot days, they tend to retreat into the cool shade provided by the forest trees, making it more difficult to spot them at the centre.
The BSBCC can be found opposite the more famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. They share veterinary amenities and tourist facilities like a cafe and public toilet. All profits from ticket and merchandise sales go towards helping the endangered sun bears.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC)
Started as an environmental education centre for students and teachers, the RDC is now a destination for nature lovers in its own right. About a 20-minute walk or a 5-minute car ride from the main centre of Sepilok, the RDC is relatively unknown. However, this massive rainforest centre is the best way to get to know Borneo’s rainforests with its many trails in the Kabili-Sepilok forest, 350-metre long canopy walkway, and an impressive collection of plants in its discovery garden.
The RDC accepts visitors every day from 8am to 5pm. Whether you are exploring the forest on ground or up high on the canopy walkway, an array of sounds from the buzzing insects and chirping birds will greet you. Be sure to put on an ample amount of insect repellent and bring a pair of binoculars as the centre is a paradise for bird watchers. Many varieties of splendidly coloured birds like the rhinoceros hornbills, stork-billed kingfishers, black and red broadbills, and many more can be spotted here.
The RDC also organises nocturnal walks within the facility and this is a must-do for any wildlife enthusiast. The walk is at least 2 hours long and chances for animal encounters are very high. However, you should make a reservation before 4:30 pm on the day since the nocturnal walk would be canceled if it does not reach the minimum number of four people.
This night activity starts at 6 pm and begins with a tour of the canopy walkway where the giant flying squirrels reside. Therefore, arriving on time is crucial as the squirrels wake up at around 6:30 pm and glide out of their dwellings. So you are sure to see them soar from tree to tree. You also get the chance to encounter the cute but poisonous slow lorries and sleeping birds while at the canopy walkway. You are quite likely to spot various interesting insects, scorpions, spiders, mouse deer, civets after you descend into the forest grounds, and the very shy Bornean tarsier if you are immensely lucky.
You can easily spend more than a day bird-watching and exploring the rainforest because the RDC grounds is so vast. Proceeds from entrance ticket sales and nocturnal walk tour go back to the centre to help educate the public about the importance of one of the world’s oldest rainforests.
Sepilok is a refreshing destination that offers visitors a glimpse into the mysterious Borneo rainforest, thanks to the acres and acres of oil palm plantations that surround it. Not only do the animal sanctuaries and research centres aid in preserving the disappearing flora and fauna, they also help in educating the public about the significance of the forest. Tourism is one way of facilitating conservation efforts, in the hopes of restoring this amazingly green rainforest back to its former glory.