The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) is owned and managed by the Sabah state government. According to the website of the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), “The aim of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back to the wild.” SORC is at the edge of the Sepilok-Kabili forest reserve (SKFR) where the centre’s ex-rehabilitant (released into forest after completion of rehabilitation) orangutans co-range with wild orangutans (born in SKFR and not ex-rehabilitants).
SORC is open to the public for tourism purposes. It has twice a day outdoor feeding sessions, 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., where tourists can pay to enter and view orangutans feeding on a feeding platform adjacent to the centre. During visiting hours tourists are also able to view orangutans at the outdoor nursery area, supposedly undergoing rehabilitation.
The tourism at SORC, however, does not abide by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Best Practice Guidelines for Great Ape Tourism and this is having an impact on the apes. Below are several points from the guideline, in relation to SORC, and our comments. A full copy of this guideline is available here.
Page 10 – Consequently, experts recommend that no tourism be allowed with rehabilitant orangutans that are eligible for or already returned to forest life (Rosen and Byers 2002).
Page 58 – No tourism should be allowed with reintroducable orangutans in rehabilitation centres, or in forests where rehabilitants range (Rosen and Byers 2002; Russon, Susilo and Russell 2004).
Ex-rehabilitant orangutans have been released into the SKFR while rehabilitant orangutans are also known to roam around SORC. Exposing ex-rehabilitant/rehabilitant and wild orangutans to large numbers of people such as at SORC and without abiding IUCN best practices increases habituation to humans among these apes. Human habituation can seriously effect orangutans, including hampering an orangutan’s chances of living independently in a forest and increasing their susceptibility to poachers, among other effects. To make matters worse, SORC allows rotating volunteers to be part of the rehabilitation process. These individuals pay to volunteer at SORC for four weeks and there are a maximum of twelve people in a group. Habituation to humans also inevitably leads to increase in instances of contact or close proximity between tourists and orangutans at SORC and this does not only escalate disease transmission risks (such as hepatitis and influenza) among humans-orangutans but expose both to physical attacks. In 2017 an ex-rehabilitant orangutan attacked a tourist. Although there are attempts to control crowds by staff during feeding sessions at SORC it is a challenge to control movements of habituated orangutans and a challenge for staff to be at all areas during visiting hours, as our video shows. We have previously received reports of orangutans mugging tourists of their belongings and have been told of ‘problem’ orangutans vanishing from SORC; Sabah state officials never commented after they were asked of this. Orangutans have also been seen at hotels and other tourist attractions outside SORC.
Page 10 – Orangutan tourism focused on rehabilitants, especially when visited in unnatural contexts such as cages and feeding platforms and by extremely large numbers of visitors, does not meet many of the criteria that define ecotourism and as such should not be promoted as ecotourism or considered best practice.
We are unaware if SORC has also labeled itself as an ecotourism attraction. It is our belief that the main purpose of having a twice a day feeding sessions at SORC is to lure orangutans to the feeding platform for tourism purposes.
Page 49 – There should be no more than one visit per day to each group of apes (or individual/ party/forest area in the case of chimpanzee and orangutan tourism).
SORC has twice a day feeding sessions. Having more than one visit per day increases the instance of orangutan habituation to humans and in turn increase disease transmission and physical risks between humans-orangutans at SORC.
Page 49 – All tourists and staff who are likely to approach habituated apes to within 10 metres should wear a surgical quality N95 respirator mask for the duration of their one-hour visit. Respirators that filter out higher percentages of aerosolised particles are also acceptable (i.e., N99 or N100).
Tourists to SORC are not required to wear a respirator mask. Staff managing crowds near the feeding platform have also not been seen wearing a mask. With reference to orangutans, it is important to note that “habituated apes” mentioned above refers to arboreal (in trees) wild orangutans that are not stressed when viewed and followed by tourists from the ground or from boats while strictly abiding other guidelines. This respirator mask requirement is even more urgent at SORC considering there are habituated orangutans that travel terrestrially, including on human made structures, and have been seen getting to within less than 10 metres or even into direct contact with SORC tourists.
Page 50 – Children below 15 years old must not be allowed to visit great apes. While parents may argue against this regulation on the basis that their child is capable of the hike or mature enough to control their fear, this safeguard is primarily for health reasons. Young people are more likely to be infected with common childhood diseases, even when properly vaccinated, and therefore pose a much greater health risk to habituated apes.
There is no entry age limit at SORC and children can often be seen at the centre.
Page 57 – Individual orangutans should not be visited by tourists for more than 10 days per month. Tourism to individual orangutans should be suspended for at least 3 months per year. Note that if all habituated orangutans at a particular site use the same area of forest, periodic closure of the site is recommended.
SORC is open to tourism 365 days a year.
The Sabah Wildlife Department and state government might argue that tourists are not allowed into areas where the rehabilitation process of SORC orangutans take place. However, the effect of unsustainable orangutan tourism (and volunteering) can impede the progress of orphans undergoing rehabilitation at SORC for potential wild release. A British orangutan organisation which works in Sabah made the statement below when commenting on sending SORC orangutans to a luxury hotel in Sabah under the pretense of rehabilitation. FOTO Malaysia stopped the exploitation in 2016. The highlighted parts below refers to the effect of habituated orangutans at SORC on orangutans undergoing rehabilitation at the centre.