Sepilok orangutan tourism – here’s what’s wrong

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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.

The main purpose of having a twice a day feeding sessions at SORC is to lure orangutans to the feeding platform for tourism purposes. We are unaware if SORC has also labeled itself as an ecotourism attraction. However, tour agencies may label SORC as a ecotourism destination to lure customers and this gives tourists a wrong impression of orangutan conservation.


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.


Additional note:

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. In addition, it is wrong to assume that ex-captives are ‘rehabilitated’ when let out of rehabilitation areas: they still have to learn to forage and travel independently, integrate into the reserve’s orangutan community. 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 guise 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.




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Zoo Negara’s cruel treatment of orangutans and chimps

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Please take action for the orangutans and chimpanzees at Zoo Negara by retweeting our tweet, click here to retweet now. More action plans will be posted on our website soon.

The national zoo of Malaysia, Zoo Negara, a World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) member, has been keeping orangutans and chimps in tiny, barren cages, where the apes seem barely able to move, for years. This is a cruel manner to keep these intelligent animals in. This zoo keeps pandas from China, over US $20 million have been spent on them, while the Malaysian government forks out over half a million dollars annually on the upkeep of the bears. In 2019 at least $1.7 million dollars will be spent.

While tens of millions have been spent on the pandas, orangutans, the iconic animals of Malaysia and Indonesia are being treated very differently. Zoo Negara, which is reportedly under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission on allegations of corruption, has been keeping orangutans in very tiny concrete cells, where the apes spend over 12 hours a day when the zoo is closed. We have conveyed our concerns to the zoo, who appear to show little interest in improving the lives of the orangutans. Besides, chimps are also kept in the same, shameful manner.




Meanwhile, we have also informed Zoo Negara that the outdoor Bornean orangutan enclosures need to be significantly improved. Yet months on the zoo appear to have done very little to provide a better quality of live for the red apes when they are on display to zoo visitors. The current enclosures lack:

  • Arboreal locomotion opportunities. It is important for zoos to try and mimic orangutans’ life in the wild and allow them to exhibit their natural behaviours. Here’s an example.
  • Lack of hiding areas. Zoo animals need to be given the opportunity to hide from public view when they desire. Not being able to do so can increase stress on the animals.
  • Lack of shade from the rain and sun.
  • Lack of enrichment items. Enrichment is one of the most important elements for zoo animals, to keep them physically and psychologically active while promoting natural behaviours.



What can you do? Share this article, tweet (see above) and boycott Zoo Negara until they vastly improve the lives of their orangutans and chimps.

Welfare concerns on release plan of two Sepilok orangutans

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Photo: two young orangutans grab a tourist at SORC

Earlier this year FOTO Malaysia questioned the release of a habituated Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) orangutan called ‘Tiger’. Our statement, which was also printed by a local media outlet, was not responded to by the Sabah Wildlife Department, a Sabah government agency which manages SORC. Tiger is now back at SORC. Read our statement here.

On 2 October 2019, the Borneo Post (and other media outlets) reported that the Sabah Wildife Department now plan to send two “rehabilitated” orangutans, Ceria and Rosa, from SORC to release them into the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, a protected forest in eastern Sabah.

Both Rosa and Ceria were reported to have arrived at SORC at age one. Rosa is now 18 years old while Ceria is 13, based on web postings by a British organisation. Rosa was once labeled as often seen at SORC while she waited to steal from “her next victim” while Ceria was “Often seen: causing mischief whenever possible! Keep a safe distance from Ceria if you spot him!“. Rosa gave birth to her baby in captivity at SORC in May 2018, based on a source. A video uploaded on YouTube apparently shows Rosa and her baby on a tourist boardwalk near SORC. We also invite SWD to comment if Rosa’s infant is still in her care.

Ceria, meanwhile, is known among SORC staff as a physical risk to staff and tourists, according to sources. He attacked a SORC tourist in 2017. The attack is no fault of Ceria’s, unsustainable tourism and hands-on volunteering practice at SORC is what is causing human habituation among orangutans at SORC. A SWD staff informed us that SORC is now wary of legal repercussions resulting from physical risks to tourists who visit the centre.

In the area of orangutan rehabilitation it is not common for orangutans saved at age one to take 10-15 years to be rehabilitated, and released as adults. Before they are moved to Tabin SWD needs to be completely transparent and explain on what basis they are transferring Rosa and Ceria, who are both completely habituated to humans. Another SWD staff confided in us that SORC is worried that the media would find out about the behaviour and risks posed by the centre’s habituated orangutans. Was this also a reason in deciding to move Ceria and Rosa out of SORC?

We would like to question if both have been proven to forage on a daily basis on their own in the Sepilok-Kabili forest and built nests, all while staying away from human attention and dependency. All data which led to SWD deciding to transfer them to Tabin should be made public, as recommended by the IUCN, before the transfer is made.

The SWD should also inform for how many months they plan to conduct Post Release Monitoring – vital in ensuring the survivability of released orangutans. Data for this should also be made public. The previous release of a habituated orangutan called Tiger, which we were told was his second release, was again a failure again and his future is now in doubt once more. On 3 September 2019 SWD once again said they plan to release Tiger. There should also be full transparency on his planned release, including Post Release Monitoring results.

While Tiger was sent back to SORC in December 2018 the centre continued to play a video which included parts showing Tiger’s release into Tabin, which would have given the impression to SORC visitors that Tiger was living a free orangutan in Tabin when he was actually in a cage at SORC. As of August 2019 this video was still playing at SORC.

Photo: Tiger in his cage at SORC