The Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre
By Nikki McKee
In Malay orang translates to people and utan means jungle. Orang-utans are literally people of the jungle, and when you see these great orange creatures swinging through the forest there is no questioning the origin of their name.
Orang-utans are facing extinction and the main cause is loss of habitat – their environment is being cleared mostly for palm oil. The Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) is working to make a difference in the fate of the orang-utan. With government backing, international support and a devoted team the SORC is playing a large role in keeping the orang-utan from extinction and also in educating the wider public.
Baby orang-utans are rescued, mostly as orphans from new palm oil plantations or from people keeping them unwittingly as pets, and are brought to the centre. In the wild babies spend about 7-8 years with mum. Without parental guidance, they are all but helpless.
The SORC has a buddy system. It’s a bit like when my 5 year old started school – the older orang-utans buddy up with the new entrants. They learn their jungle skills from their buddies and are loved and cared for by the devoted staff at the centre.
Eventually the orang-utans will be released back into the wild. Occasionally, before this happens, some mating goes on within the centre. When we visited the centre in June 2015, this had been the case and Archie and Awangtang were two babies born into the centre.
On the day we visited, Mumi and her son Archie came to the feeding platform for some afternoon tea. She was soon joined by Clenan and her baby Awangtan. There they sat, in the afternoon shade enjoying each others company.
It is very rare to see mums and babies at the centre as aside from being solitary creatures, they are quite protective of their young. Seeing two mums together was an extra special treat. It is possible that because they didn’t have to compete for food, they were able to be so relaxed together.
They two mums picked and groomed their children. Awangtang swung overhead and Archie clung close to his mum Mumi and enjoyed some affection from Clenan. Orang-utans have 97% of the DNA in common with humans and seeing these mums and babies hanging out together was not too dissimilar from watching mums and their babies over a cup of tea.
The centre is large and once the orang-utans have reached a certain level of rehabilitation they are free to do as they please in the 4000+ hectares of jungle they call home. The SORC is large enough that it is a natural environment for orang-utans. Watching them roam freely was truly mesmerising and not to be missed if you’re in Borneo.