Viewing Orangutans in the Wild

The once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing orangutans in their natural environment draws many eager visitors to the lush jungles of Southeast Asia. There is no doubt about it, this majestic animal is a sight to behold and can only be viewed in the wild in certain parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. However, it is important to keep in mind that the orangutan is also a critically endangered species, on the brink of extinction due to deforestation.

As orangutan viewing experiences become more popular, it is critical to plan a holiday that treats both the animals and their habitat with respect. In addition to potentially sighting a wild orangutan, tourists may also see ex-captives – orangutans who have been released into a semi-wild environment after being rehabilitated in captivity. Doing your part by choosing ethical tours, supporting local communities, and spreading awareness will help global efforts to save this vulnerable species.

What are some important best practices that travelers should consider before visiting orangutans in their forest home? To help put the viewing guidelines into context, let’s begin with a brief overview of the different types of ex-captive and wild orangutan viewing experiences. For information and guidelines on rescue centers, sanctuaries or volunteer programs, visit here.

An orangutan appears for a feeding at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Budi Nusyirwan / Flickr

Types of Ex-Captive and Wild Orangutan Viewing Experiences

Ex-captive orangutans at rehabilitation sites & feeding camps

Popular Locations: Tanjung Puting National Park (Borneo, Indonesia), Bukit Lawang (Sumatra, Indonesia), Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (Sabah, Malaysia), Semenggoh Nature Reserve (Sarawak, Malaysia)

One of the most popular orangutan experiences is visiting feeding camps or sanctuaries in the jungle. Ex-captive orangutans (and their offspring) who live in the surrounding forested areas will often visit these sites for daily feedings. Though sightings are never guaranteed, there is a good chance that visitors will see orangutans approaching through the trees to eat the fruit provided behind a roped off area. Given that orangutans can venture outside of these sectioned off feeding areas, it is imperative to understand a few rules and suggested conduct before entering their jungle home (see viewing guidelines section below).

Ex-captive orangutans viewed during boat cruises

Popular Locations: Sabangau National Park (Borneo, Indonesia)

Another way to view ex-captive orangutans in their natural habitat is to take a riverboat cruise to a ‘pre-release’ rehabilitation island where they can be observed prior to reintroduction to the wild. River tours may stop by such islands without making an actual landing. This activity limits contact between visitors and orangutans, and gives tourists the opportunity to observe and photograph the animals’ natural behavior.

Wild orangutans in their jungle habitat

Popular Locations: Sabangau National Park (Borneo, Indonesia), Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park (Borneo, Indonesia), Tanjung Puting National Park (Borneo, Indonesia), Betung Kerihun National Park (Borneo, Indonesia), Gunung Palung National Park (Borneo, Indonesia), Gunung Leuser National Park (Sumatra, Indonesia), Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (Sabah, Malaysia), Danum Valley Conservation Area (Sabah, Malaysia), Tabin Wildlife Reserve (Sabah, Malaysia), Batang Ai National Park (Sarawak, Malaysia)

Though sightings are less common, the lure of viewing wild orangutans in their natural habitat draws tourists from all over the world. While visitors may see orangutans in the forests en route to the feeding camps, travelers searching for a more natural experience may choose to spend a few days hiking through the jungle. In particular, more remote areas of the locations listed above offer an opportunity to potentially spot an orangutan in the wild.

An orangutan in the wild in Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Andrew H / Flickr

Viewing Guidelines for Ex-Captive or Wild Orangutans

Regardless of which type of orangutan viewing experience you seek, the guidelines below will help you make more responsible and ethical travel decisions. Wildlife is still just that, ‘wild’, therefore, the more travelers adhere to rules and regulations, the less impact your experience will have on these magnificent animals.

  • Keep your distance, at minimum 10 meters (about 32 feet or 11 yards), from the orangutans or other wildlife that may appear.  At some destinations, particularly the feeding camps, orangutans will wander the grounds. ‘Ex-captive’ orangutans can be less timid around humans than their wild counterparts and will share some of the same space as visitors, such as boardwalks and pathways.  While it may be tempting to get closer to the wildlife at some of these destinations, giving them space and leaving them alone is the most appropriate course of action.
  • Never feed the wildlife. As enticing as this may be, and although some destinations may display more lax enforcement of this rule, it is never acceptable for tourists to feed the wildlife. Feeding stations provide supplementary fruit for the orangutans to eat if they feel so inclined. Never feed the wildlife from your boat as orangutans may appear along the river. Luring with food and altering behavior could have detrimental effects on the orangutans’ ability to survive.
  • Refrain from moving around or disturbing the orangutans’ natural behavior. Minimizing your movement at orangutan sites allows them to interact with each other and behave naturally without feeling threatened. If the observation site has benches, sit down. Never position yourself between a mother and baby or between a (dominant) male orangutan and a female; stay close together in your group.
  • Wear protective masks and do not enter orangutan habitat if you feel ill. Humans are highly contagious to orangutans and can transmit airborne illnesses by mouth and nose. Though not enforced at some destinations, it is recommended to wear masks around primates. Even if you have a common cold, refrain from visiting orangutan habitats until you are no longer contagious.
  • Keep noise level down and minimize any potential of disturbing the orangutans’ natural behavior. Keep your voice low and do not call out to an orangutan or attempt to lure them, as this can be dangerous and will alter their natural behavior. As orangutans are deceptively strong, never touch one if it ventures close-by. In the event that an orangutan takes a hold of you, your arm or hand, stay calm, do not raise your voice, and immediately ask your guide to assist you.
  • Limit your visit to two hours with ex-captives & up to one hour with wild orangutans. Any type of visit to orangutan habitat causes impact. In order to minimize your impacts, limit your visit to two hours at feeding camps and up to one hour in the wild. If you’re following an orangutan in the wild and they begin to display stressed behavior, such as making noises, limit your time to 15-20 minutes. Talk to your guide before you embark on your trip. Ask about time limits and express your wish to adhere to such rules.
  • Be vigilant of your children particularly at the feeding camps where orangutans can move around. Keeping your kids close and making sure they do not wander in the path of these primates is crucial to ensuring the safety of both your child and the orangutans.
  • Hire local guides and tour operators that employ residents from the surrounding communities and cities. If you use a global tour operator, ask them if they hire locally.  Supporting livelihoods for local communities through ecotourism encourages environmental conservation.
  • Determine if your guide follows ethical tourism practices. Before booking, ask questions such as if they are affiliated with a particular wildlife protection body; inquire with local conservation organizations about suggested operators (list provided below); research their reputation online and be upfront about your desire to travel responsibly in terms of animal welfare.
  • Visit local communities in orangutan habitat. This is one of the most important actions an ecotourist can take since sustainable travel and conservation rely on the participation of the local communities.  The villages are stewards of their natural environment, so supporting their businesses, such as homestays, will encourage future protection of environmental resources.
  • Research and inquire about local conservation groups and their work. Some of the world’s most reputable orangutan conservation organizations are based in Indonesia and Malaysia. Some have also cultivated partnerships with ecotourism operations. Contact these NGOs with questions pertaining to orangutan experiences and, if relevant, participate in tours they have endorsed. In addition to these orangutan-specific organizations, Sustainable Travel International, is another useful resource for those who wish to learn more about responsible travel.

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