Sepilok Rehab Centre in Sabah

A Sanctuary in the Wilderness
by Angela Dewar
The Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Malaysia, gives orang-utans a second chance at life before they are returned to their natural habitat.

The young orang-utans swing from lianas, climb onto branches and play on the forest floor. They're so relaxed and full of life in their new home you can almost see a smile on their little faces.
This is where they'll stay for the next few years, within the confines of this protected reserve, until they're old enough to be released back into the wild. But life wasn't always this peaceful.
Some were orphaned when their mother was killed by hunters, others taken as pets and later abandoned when the cute and cuddly apes grew too big. The one thing they all have in common is that they've been given a second chance at life, thanks to the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre here in Sabah in Malaysian Borneo.
The first, and largest, of only four sanctuaries in the world for orang-utans, there are more than 20 youngsters in the nurseries, as well as older ones living a more independent life further out in the forest, waiting to return to the wild. It's a full-scale operation to keep them fed, provide adequate medical care and teach them the life skills they'll need to survive in the jungle.
I'm standing on a walkway overlooking part of the forest where the younger ones are, quite literally, learning the ropes. Little bundles of red fur with huge brown eyes, they play in the trees, swing from ropes and congregate on a platform at feeding time. The milk and bananas supplement whatever they've managed to forage for themselves on the trees–leaves, twigs, fruit, figs and honey.
At this tender age, if they were in the wild, they'd still be protected by their mother until the age of six. Here, a clever buddy system replaces mum and the young orphaned orang-utan is paired with an older one to learn all about climbing, finding food and building a nest.
It's thought that less than 10,000 of these incredible creatures are left in the world, their numbers diminishing due to hunters and the decimation of the rainforest. Experts warn that most of Southeast Asia's rainforests will be destroyed by 2020, along with much of its unique wildlife. That's why centres like this one are so important.
When feeding time is over, the orang-utans disappear into the deep jungle area and I follow the mangrove trail through the sanctuary. It's a surprisingly noisy place with the constant birdsong and the chirping of chicadas. The boardwalk passes through re-creations of the kind of rainforest which at one time covered this corner of Borneo. Now it's also being used to help rehabilitate other animals brought to the park, from Malay sun bears and wild cats to baby elephants.
Before they're ready to come to Sepilok, very young orang-utans take their first steps towards freedom in the grounds of the nature reserve at the Shangri-la's Rasa Ria resort near Kota Kinabalu. It has helped 18 orphans return to the rainforest since it was set up in 11 years ago, working with some as young as two years old who wouldn't leave their mother's side in the wild for another couple of years.
From Sepilok, I make my way to the coastal town of Sandekan to pick up a boat to head upriver. I'm swapping my hotel room for a night in more authentic accommodation at a homestay.
At Kampung Abai there's the opportunity to live with a local family for a couple of days. The idea is straightforward enough: experience first hand how the family prepares food, eat meals, works and relaxes. The village chief organises individual homestays for a basic price of 40 Ringgits a night. In return, I gain entry to a truly unique world. It's fascinating for someone like me who has grown up in a European city.
I learn from my host Munir the art of eating rice with my fingers, which is even trickier, much to his amusement, because I'm left-handed and food in Muslim villages is always eaten with the right. And from his wife Haim how to sit on the floor without losing the circulation in one leg after five minutes. And, more importantly, the good manners of calling out a greeting before walking inside a traditional longhouse. In a community like this where the front door is always open, it pays to be polite.

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