General public finally barred from involvement with orangutan rehab at Sepilok

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Main photo credit: Travellers Worldwide Instagram
Friends of the Orangutans • 6 July 2020

The Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) recently confirmed that an exploitive voluntourism programme practised at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) for more than 15 years until early 2020 has been permanently discontinued.

Previously, with the approval of the SWD, British company Travellers Worldwide sent up to 12 unqualified individuals to the SORC every four weeks. The ‘volunteers’ were able to take part in the rehabilitation process of orphaned orangutans that undergo training at the centre for eventual forest release. Each individual paid around US$ 3,400.

The practice was commercial exploitation of a Critically Endangered wildlife species sanctioned by the SWD, the Sabah state wildlife agency under the Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (KePKAS).

After Travellers Worldwide ignored our demand to stop their volunteering programme at the SORC, Friends of the Orangutans (FOTO) started campaigning against the company in late 2019. In December 2019, the Asia for Animals Coalition (AfA) wrote to Travellers Worldwide to ask that the company ceases its volunteering programme at the centre. Almost 200 animal organisations from around the world co-signed the coalition’s appeal letter.



In January 2020 Travellers Worldwide ceased operations. After making two inquiries, the SWD revealed to FOTO on 11 June 2020 that members of the public would not be allowed to take part in the rehabilitation process of orangutans at the SORC any longer.

Orangutans undergoing rehabilitation should only be exposed to, and bond with, minimal number of caregivers as possible in their early years as the apes are guided through the rehabilitation process. Rehabilitation at the SORC should be carried out by the SORC’s permanent staff only.

Having ever-changing personnel working hands-on with rehabilitant orangutans increases the risk of the apes becoming humanised (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on, humans). Humanisation diverts the orangutans’ interest away from natural behaviours and interactions within the forest environment and may fail an orangutan’s rehabilitation. Our previous article explains why allowing the general public to join the rehabilitation process of orangutans can be harmful to the apes.

Reputable orangutan rehabilitation centres, such as those run by organisations International Animal Rescue and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), have never allowed the public to engage with orangutans in their care. Their centres do not allow any form of tourism.

The SWD should have stopped Travellers Worldwide’s exploitation of SORC orangutans years ago – as the Sabah state government wildlife agency, the SWD has authority to do so. Nonetheless, we applaud the SWD for this positive development and thank the AfA Coalition for their support. 

There are still other concerns at the SORC, including unsustainable tourism and the fate of six orangutans. Updates on these and other SORC issues will be posted on our website.


See our other articles regarding the SORC below.

Sepilok orangutan tourism – here’s what’s wrong

COVID-19: Time for change at Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre

When profits rule – Sepilok orangutan release disaster

Perilous orangutan tourism resumes at Sepilok amid COVID-19 pandemic

SWD’s dubious plan to release two orphaned Sepilok orangutans

No transparency from Sabah wildlife authorities on welfare concerns of 6 Sepilok orangutans

Perilous orangutan tourism resumes at Sepilok amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Main photo: SORC visitor photographs an orangutan up close. Her face mask is in her hand. The person on the left, with a cane in his hand, is an SWD staff.

Published 1 July 2020

Tourism at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) was temporarily halted in March this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recently resumed on 15 June.

Although visitor precautions have been put in place, recent images show lax enforcement of the safety measures. This does not come as a surprise as the Sabah state government and its wildlife agency the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) have for years shown an apparent disregard for the Critically Endangered orangutans at the SORC by prioritising profits.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had indicated that until proven otherwise, it’s best to assume that great apes are susceptible to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19. In April, researchers noted that it is likely apes are prone to Covid-19. According to our colleagues in Africa and Indonesia great ape tourism in these areas has yet to resume as of 29 June.

At the moment, only Malaysians are allowed into the SORC. A sign outside the centre reminds visitors that they should refrain from entering if they have symptoms of cough, breathing difficulty, sore throat and headache. Body temperature is checked before visitors are allowed in, and a face mask must be worn when inside the SORC premise, which is half an hour outside Sandakan city.

However, pre-symptomatic (no Covid-19 symptoms in the early stages of infection) or asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers may still visit the SORC. Although the safety measures currently taken for tourist visits at the SORC are vital, it is impossible to reduce the risks of possible infection to SORC staff and orangutans down to zero.

Signs to remind SORC visitors to remain more than 15 metres of an orangutan have been placed at the centre. The signs also clearly state: COVID-19 may infect orangutans. However, enforcement of precautionary requirements by the SWD is questionable as visitors have recently been seen to come within less than 15 metres, without a face mask, all while being under the watch of SWD staff.


Photo: SORC visitor without a face mask getting too close to an orangutan. The person on the right is an SWD staff


Children have also been seen inside the SORC recently, either not wearing a face mask properly, or without a face mask. The IUCN’s great ape tourism guidelines, published in 2010, state that tourism should not be allowed at orangutan rehabilitation centres, such as at the SORC. At areas where great ape tourism can take place, children under the age of 15 should not be allowed to visit as they are more likely than adults to release pathogens.

We had highlighted these and other unsustainable orangutan tourism practices at the SORC before the SWD suspended tourism at the centre in March, and health risks to orangutans in April.


Photo: A child on the right without a face mask. Adults can be seen not wearing a face mask properly, including in the presence of an SWD staff (orange t-shirt)


Research has shown that human sneeze can reach up to a hundred miles an hour (about 160 km/h), and saliva from the sternutation can travel up to eight metres. Evaporating droplets from the sneeze can then remain suspended in the air for several minutes.

The research stated above were conducted indoors. However, the lack of or improper use of face masks at the SORC, and the fact that humanised (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on, humans) orangutans often travel terrestrially and come to within several metres of visitors at the centre undeniably increases the risk of disease transmission.

Great apes are susceptible to human diseases, including tuberculosis and influenza. The human coronavirus OC43 (HCoV–OC43) is known to infect chimpanzees. Like COVID-19, the OC43 coronavirus, tuberculosis and influenza are respiratory illnesses and can also be spread through the air.

It is also important to note that earlier in June, the Malaysian government had declared that Malaysians could start to travel from the peninsular to Sabah. AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines have resumed flights from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan, enabling Malaysians travelling from the peninsular to visit the SORC soon after getting off a plane.

If the argument for reopening the SORC is to help local tour guides and companies, it is unfounded. Malaysians rarely utilise tour guides/companies for SORC visits. The centre is so reliant on foreign tourists that two hotels only minutes away from the SORC are still closed.

The Malaysian government has done a highly commendable job in controlling the spread of COVID-19. However, the risk of contracting and spreading the virus among people remains, and the risk of people possibly infecting orangutans at the SORC will be higher if the centre starts accepting foreign tourists before a vaccine is found.

Unlike at the esteemed Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), where sun bears are kept apart from visitors at all times, it is a challenge to manage the movement of every tourist and humanised orangutan at the SORC especially when there are vast numbers of tourists around. Even with limited visitors currently, the Sabah state government and the SWD appear not to prioritise the health of a Critically Endangered Malaysian icon.

If the Sabah state government had transitioned towards sustainable and ethical orangutan tourism away from the SORC years ago, careful planning of the reopening of wild orangutan tourism would be more feasible. Instead, state officials have for many years appeared to be more interested in making a quick buck.

Is it time for some resignations at the Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment Sabah (KePKAS) and the SWD?


We have highlighted other serious concerns at the SORC. See our articles below.

COVID-19: Time for change at Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre

SWD’s dubious plan to release two orphaned Sepilok orangutans

Sepilok orangutan tourism – here’s what’s wrong

When profits rule – Sepilok orangutan release disaster

British company folds, but will orangutan exploitation at Sepilok end?