The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) is owned by the Sabah government and managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), a state government agency under the Sabah environment ministry (KePKAS). According to SWD the website “The aim of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back to the wild.” after a period of rehabilitation. SORC is at the edge of the Sepilok-Kabili forest reserve (SKFR) where the centre’s ex-rehabilitant orangutans (released into forest after completion of rehabilitation) 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 where tourists can pay to enter and view orangutans feeding on a platform inside SKFR, and view orangutans supposedly undergoing rehabilitation at the outdoor nursery area at the centre.
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 negatively impacts the apes and puts tourists in danger. Below are several points from the guideline, in relation to SORC, and our comments. The guideline is available here.
Pg. 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).
Pg. 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 and they, along with rehabilitant (undergoing rehabilitation) orangutans, are known to roam terrestrially 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 affect orangutans, including hampering an orangutan’s chances of living independently in a forest, encourage terrestriality (which has been linked to increased vulnerability to predation), deficient nesting skills, poor arboreal travel, inefficient foraging and increased vulnerability to poachers. To make matters worse, SORC allows up tourists to be part of the rehabilitation process – up to twelve unqualified individuals pay to volunteer at SORC every four weeks*. 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) between humans-orangutans but expose both to physical attacks. In 2017 an ex-rehabilitant orangutan attacked a tourist and another injured in a 2016 attack. Although there are attempts to control crowds by staff during visiting hours at SORC it is a challenge to control movements of the 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 suspiciously vanishing from SORC; SWD and KePKAS officials refused to comment when they were asked of this. Orangutans have also been seen at hotels and other tourist attractions outside SORC, as a photo below shows.
Pg. 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 purpose of having a twice a day feeding sessions at SORC is to lure orangutans to the feeding platform for tourism purposes. While we’re unaware if SORC has also labelled itself as an ecotourism attraction, tour companies may label SORC as an ecotourism destination to lure customers and this gives tourists a wrong impression of orangutan conservation.
Pg. 48 – To facilitate the control of visitors, minimise danger and enhance visitor satisfaction, the number of people per party should be no more than 4 tourists accompanied by 2 guides/trackers. This should achieve a reasonable balance between apes and humans, and reduce stress and its knock-on effects.
We are not aware if there is an entry limit to SORC, but it’s certainly not four. In fact, over ten times the recommended amount of tourists can be seen during a feeding session, depending on the month of the year.
Pg. 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 session. 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.
Pg. 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 in the recommendation above refer 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, especially on human-made structures, and have been seen getting to within less than 10 metres or even into direct contact with SORC tourists.
Photo: Two orangutans grab a tourist at SORC
Pg. 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.
Pg. 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. Many of the same orangutans can regularly be seen at SORC.
Important additional note:
The Sabah Wildlife Department and state government may argue that tourists are not allowed into areas where the rehabilitation process of SORC orangutans take place. However, tourists can pay huge sums of money to be part of the rehabilitation process*, as stated above. Moreover, the effect of unsustainable orangutan tourism can impede the progress of orphans undergoing rehabilitation for wild release. In addition, it is wrong to assume that orangutans are rehabilitated when let/moved out of rehabilitation areas: they still have to learn and prove that they can forage and survive independently and integrate into a forest’s orangutan community. A British orangutan organisation which works in Sabah made the statement below when defending the sending of orphaned SORC orangutans to a luxury hotel in the state under the guise of rehabilitation. FOTO 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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*The British company which ran the unethical volunteering programme at SORC reportedly closed down in late February 2020. However, neither the SWD nor the Sabah environment ministry has confirmed that the programme will not continue. Read more here.