The Best Places to Find Orangutans in the Wild
SUMATRA VS BORNEO: BEST PLACES TO TREK
Orangutans are one of the most intelligent and majestic great apes left on our planet, but due to continuous habitat loss as well as the pet trade, wild orangutans have been reduced to just several thousand animals on two islands: Borneo and Sumatra. This habitat loss, due to palm oil and cocoa plantations, has squeezed wild orangutans into some of the last remaining primary rainforests on these two islands, and there are several national parks in Malaysia and Indonesia where you can still find wild orangutans, as well as semi-wild orangutans.
In January and February 2019, our team went on a recce trip to several different locations and national parks across Sumatra and Borneo where wild orangutans live. We’ll discuss the different options for trekking with orangutans in the wild and which places really stood out to us.
WILD ORGANGUTAN TREKKING: NATIONAL PARKS
West Gunung Leuser National Park (Sumatra, Indonesia)
Our vote goes to Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park as the best place in the world to track and find absolutely wild orangutans in the pristine rainforest. This national park is simply incredible. Gigantic towering trees line the forest skyline while bright green ferns and vines carpet the floors. It’s also teeming with wildlife-- wild orangutans, Thomas-leaf monkeys, and macaques are quite plentiful, but there are also pygmy elephants, various reptile species, sun bears and even tigers (our team leader in the park has seen tigers only three times in his life, but already that’s quite impressive).
In our three days trekking here, we found wild orangutans every day, as well as dozens of other species of mammals and reptiles. You camp right in the jungle at one of several small, cleared campsites and feel like you are completely surrounded by nature and removed from development in this incredible setting.
Getting there: Gunung Leuser is not the easiest place in the world to access. You must drive about 8 hours from Medan to the small jungle town of Ketambe, in Aceh Province. From Ketambe, we trek by foot or raft into the jungles. Trips can last for between 2 days and 2 plus weeks, depending on what kind of wildlife you are looking to find and what level of difficulty you are prepared to face. The jungle here is deep and untamed and the farther you go inside, the more difficult the trekking becomes. The trails are narrow and only maintained by the ethnic Alas trekking guides who work in the jungle.
The guides are very strict here-- absolutely no feeding or calling the wildlife. They are wild and the guides in the park know that for the safety of the animals themselves, it’s best for them to not get too used to direct human interaction.
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Danum Valley (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo)
Danum Valley is an incredibly beautiful primary rainforest in Malaysian Borneo-- one of the last remaining of its kind, as much of Borneo, has been cleared for palm oil plantations, immediately evident when you fly into the island.
Danum Valley can be accessed via a long road into the jungle from Lahad Datu, a town located about an hour and a half’s drive from Tawau or Semporna. There are a research station and lodge in the park, which has upscale lodge rooms as well as an affordable hostel (you must book in advance). The research station operates a bus between Lahad Datu and the centre (not every day though, you have to reserve in advance).
The park is beautiful, but wildlife is much harder to find, as you are confined to escorted jungle walks on predetermined trails. If you are looking to totally immerse yourself in the jungle, but have a decent lodge to return to in the evenings, this is the place for you. Don’t count on a ton of wildlife though, and for this reason, we don’t agree with a lot of sites and guides who suggest Danum Valley as the best spot in the world to find wild orangutans.
Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo)
The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is a small strip of land that surrounds the banks of the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo. As palm oil plantations have destroyed much of the surrounding rainforest, many of the animals have been forced into this narrow wildlife sanctuary along the river.
The town of Sukau lies on the river at the start of the Sanctuary and there are many homestays and guest houses there that arrange trips by motorized canoe along the river. Most of these trips have set departure times and standardized prices, leaving in the very early morning for two hours on the river for wildlife spotting, then again just before sunset, and also in the later evening for nocturnal wildlife spotting.
We were able to see lots of Proboscis monkeys along the river, as well as macaques, monitor lizards and baby crocodiles. Finding wild orangutans here is not unheard of, and many people did see them, but not us (granted, we were only here for a couple days).
Some of the guest houses also organize jungle walks here as well, near the western end of the wildlife sanctuary.
Overall, the wildlife spotting here was decent, but it did not feel nearly as authentic as Gunung Leuser and Danum Valley, and since you’re mostly approaching wildlife while on a boat, it’s a less up close and personal experience in the jungle with them.
Gunung Palung National Park (West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)
Gunung Palung National Park is difficult to reach, located in southwest Borneo, on the Indonesian side of the island. Part of the park contains a well-preserved primary rainforest and home to wild orangutans. However, it would likely take a significant amount of time spent in the park in order to be able to find them.
To access the park, you have to make your way to the Diocese of Ketapang, and from there travel up to the village of Siduk. Then you can travel into this remote and underdeveloped park.
What about “Semi-Wild Orangutans”?
The term semi-wild orangutans refers to orangutans that were formerly held in captivity, normally as pets. There are rehabilitation and research centres in Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo that cater to semi-wild orangutans and provide food for them since many would be unable to survive completely on their own in the wild.
While you are guaranteed to see orangutans at these places, the experience is less authentic, since the orangutans are very used to human interaction, and in some cases are residents of the rehabilitation centre. If you’re short on time and really keen on just seeing orangutans, these may be some of your best options.
Sepilok (Sabah, Malaysian Borneo)
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is home to between 60 and 80 orangutans, including orphans, former captives and pets. Visitors are permitted to access the 43 square kilometre centre for the feeding times and can watch the orangutans play on ropes and in trees in the park. Strict barriers are in force to keep tourists away from the animals, so your movement is limited at the centre.
Bukit Lawang (Sumatra, Indonesia)
Bukit Lawang is a small, yet sprawling tourist town along the Bahorok River in North Sumatra province, Indonesia, and it’s only a 3-hour drive from Medan city. This region has around 5,000 orangutans, so that makes it an excellent place to spot them.
While the feeding platforms have been removed, many of the semi-wild orangutans still hand around the town and are very familiar with humans-- they will readily approach people trekking in the nearby forest to get food. The guides are largely supportive of this behaviour since these animals are former captives and did not grow up in the wild.
As far as semi-wild orangutan experiences are concerned, Bukit Lawang tops our list, as they are free to roam around the nearby forest and many conservation efforts have recently been successful in the area with the support of the Indonesian government.
Tanjung Puting National Park (Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo)
This large national park in the southern part of central Borneo is easily accessed through the town of Kumai by klotok-- a traditional wooden boat that can transport you up and down the river. Camp Leakey in the park has several feeding platforms for semi-wild orangutans that inhabit the area, offering easy glimpses of orangutans.
However, getting “off the beaten path” is not really possible here, as off the path you’ll simply find palm oil plantations, so most of the activities are very touristy in nature and are more about the boat trips and seeing the jungle than they are about truly immersing yourself within it.
To get to Tanjung Puting, you can fly from Jakarta, Surabaya, or several cities in southern Borneo to Pangkalanbuun, and from there travel by road to Kumai.
In conclusion, after travelling around both Borneo and Sumatra, we found the experience in Sumatra to be far superior. That's to say if you’re looking for authentic jungle trekking for wildlife that’s actually wild-- coupled with good chances of actually seeing the wildlife.