Travel Diary » Hanging with Orangutans at Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre
Ever since our first trip with the kids to Asia in 2009, Colin has dreamed of seeing orangutans in the wild. We visited Kota Kinabalu in Sabah on that first trip but the kids were so young and tired from the heat, and the travel distances were so long that we decided wait until the children were older and settle for seeing orangutans at the zoo. And it wouldn't be right for me to mention that zoo trip without taking the opportunity (again) to mention that during that visit Colin matched his strength against a young girl orangutan in a coconut opening contest and lost badly. If I didn't tell you the kids would!
As soon as we decided to go back to Borneo our 'one thing we must do' was to see Orangutans in the wild.
On the outskirts of Kuching, 30 minutes from the centre of town is the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, established to care for wild animals which have either been found injured in the forest, orphaned, or were previously kept as illegal pets. The centre cares for a wide range of native species, but it's orangutan program is what makes it famous.
The centre aims to rehabilitate animals in order to release them into the wild. The orangutans that visit the centre were originally animals that were in their care and over a period of several years were taken out every day by the centre's staff to suitable places in the surrounding forest where they were taught to forage for food, climb trees and swing ... all the essential skills they need to survive!
Once they are able to fend for themselves they are released into the surrounding forest where they spend most of their time living in the jungle but they do occasionally return to the centre for the twice daily feeding the centre runs. They don't always show up ... which is actually great as it means they are supporting themselves in the wild, but if fruit is scarce they will usually drop by at least once a day.
We were lucky enough to visit during the season where there is very little fruit on the trees in the jungle. Lucky because this meant that 6-7 orangutans had decided to visit the centre for morning tea! We were so busy being in awe of being up close to so many orangutans we lost count!
The feeding stations are set up close enough to the edge of the jungle that visitors can see these amazing creatures up close but far enough away that they don't feel threatened. Most of the time we were withing 10 metres of them.
It was amazing. They were really active, alternating between eating, climbing and swinging across the suspended ropes between the trees.
Which is a hazard in itself - we just missed getting peed on from a great height by one of the young males! Noah thought that was hilarious. He probably wouldn't have if he'd been peed on!
Ritchie, the dominant male was there. He's simply huge. And strong. Seeing him smash open a coconut in about three seconds flat certainly leaves you with no doubt who would win in an arm wrestling contest. I don't know if having the longest body hair is important in the orangutan community but if so he wins that too.
He arrived halfway through the feeding session and it was fascinating to see how his presence changed every other orangutan's behaviour. The mother and bub disappeared into the nearby trees until he had finished eating. The younger males all hung back or quickly got in first and ran off into the trees with their stolen fruits.
Semenggoh is 30 minutes from the centre of Kuching and holds two public feeding sessions each day - 9-10am and 3-3.30pm. The staff are fairly stict about pushing people on the door once the session finishes to ensure the animals don't get too overwhelmed. Actually they were quite strict during the whole visit to ensure public safety and the safety of their orangutans. But they were also very friendly and happy to chat or share information about each animal and the program. The morning session is supposed to be your best option for seeing orangutans, so that of course means it's the most popular one. This was the session we attended and there were approximately 100 other people there.
Entry costs RM3 (1USD) for adults, while young children are free. We were told by our driver that if you are unlucky enough to not see orangutans during your morning visit you can return in the afternoon and reuse your ticket for no extra costs. Or if you just want to see them a second time! You could easily go to the nearby crocodile farm or Annas Rais Longhouse, have some lunch at a nearby restaurant and return to the park for the afternoon session.
Public bus number 6 runs from Kuching to the Centre but it's a long walk from the front gate to the viewing area - it looked like a 20 minute walk with kids along a winding, hilly road. If you go by car or taxi they will drop you inside the park right outside the viewing area.
Don't bring any food into the park. Apart from the fact that it's one of the centre's rules, we've come off second best in a food fight against 10kg macaques so I honestly don't want to think about what would happen if a wild orangutan decided it wanted my apple!
You can buy drinks at the information and souvenir shop close to the feeding area but no food. There are plenty of shady spots to rest ... or nap within the grounds if the heat gets too much.
See the last point on the sign - Gambling is also prohibited within the park. We weren't able to figure out exactly why they felt the need to stress that point. We liked to imagine that part of the rehabilitation program was teaching the orangutans to play blackjack and now they're all addicted to gambling so they're asking visitors not to gamble in front of them.
As good a explanation as any I think!
This post if part of Delicious Baby's Photo Friday