Sepilok, a reserve of 43 sq km of lowland primary rainforest and mangrove, was set up in 1964 to protect the orang-utan from extinction. It is the first and largest of only four orang-utan sanctuaries in the world and now has 40,000 visitors a year. Logging has seriously threatened Sabah’s population of wild orang-utan, as has their capture for zoos and as pets. The orang-utan lives on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra and there are estimated to be as few as 10,000 still in the wild. In Sabah there are populations of orang-utan in the Kinabatangan basin region, Danum Valley Conservation Area and a few other isolated tracts of jungle.
Sepilok is an old forest reserve that was gazetted as a forestry experimentation centre as long ago as 1931, and by 1957 logging had been phased out. Orphaned or captured orang-utans that have become too dependent on humans through captivity are rehabilitated and protected under the Fauna Conservation Ordinance and eventually returned to their natural home. Many, for example, may have been captured by the oil-palm planters because they eat the young oil palm trees. Initially, the animals at the centre and in the surrounding area are fed every day but, as they acclimatize, they are sent further and further away or are re-released into the Tabin Wildlife Reserve near Lahad Datu.
In 1996, researchers placed microchip collars on the orang-utans enabling them to be tracked over a distance of up to 150 km so that a better understanding of their migratory habits and other behaviour could be acquired. Other animals brought here include Malay sun bears, wild cats and baby elephants. Sepilok also has a rare Sumatran rhinoceros, the Asian two-horned rhinoceros. This enclosure is sometimes closed to the public.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre is located within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, 2 km from the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and provides detailed displays about the vegetation in the area. It offers a wide range of information about all aspects of tropical rainforests and the need for conservation. It is situated in the Forest Research Centre’s arboretum and there is an 800-m rainforest walk around the lake. There also a 150-m canopy walkway offering the opportunity to walk over the forest canopy and spot wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled for hornbills, kingfishers and the Bornean bristlehead.