Sepilok Orangutans

Trip Start Feb 18, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Monday, August 30, 2010

Today we went to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.  Here they claim to take orphaned baby orangutans found by plantation owners and teach them survival skills.  The goal is that someday they can be released back into the wild.  The mission is to keep them alive and well.
We heard mixed responses about this place before we arrived.  Some said it was amazing to observe these cute apes so up close.  Others said it was a circus; a saddening display of bad behavior and poor caretakers.
We wanted to go anyway, for better or for worse, to see it for ourselves.  Luckily we went on a good day where the visiting humans were acting respecfully to their ape counterparts.  The orangutans are free ranging and at specific times they know there will be food available for them at a specific "feeding platform" which is conveniently located about 40 feet away from a viewing platform.  It is truly amazing, all opinions aside, to watch these human-like creatures.  Just in their eyes alone you can recognize emotion and expression strikingly similar to a human being.  The downside comes when they roam over through the trees to the walkway leading up to the viewing platform.  It's here that the staff takes a backseat and allows the orangutan do his thing (maybe they don't want to interfere). 

In our case it was people crowding around but keeping their distance (although the ape did swing out from a vine at one point and grab a brochure from a little girl.  Then he ate it.  We heard this particularly naughty ape, "Toby", chews on sunglasses and cameras several times a week) 
I could see how this same situation could turn ugly like it did for a couple we met that had been there a few days prior.  People with their huge cameras and even bigger nerve flashing away in the orangutan's face.  People follow by example and soon they have no fear of this (supposedly) wild animal; they think it's cute and they try to hug it.  And the staff does nothing.
Out of all the "rehabilitation centers" in Malaysia and Indonesia, all but this one have changed their names to something resembling a tourist attraction.  Sepilok (while the most popular) is the only one still claiming to do actual rehabilitation.  They claim that the popularity they have gained from visitors has raised awareness to the apes dire situation in the wild, and more importantly, encouraged donations.
It's definitely not an ideal situation for these apes, but I guess we don't live in an ideal world.

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