Flying over to the Malaysian part of Borneo most have one main objective: To see the endangered Orangutans in their natural environment in the only place in the world where they exist. With dwindling numbers over the last few decades this bucket list item is even harder to tick. However with many amazing conservation areas being set up my the Malaysian authorities to nurture these fascinating and enchanting creatures the future is looking bright for our close relatives in the trees. On our first stop in Borneo we found a great place to see Orangutans in Kuching, a small city which is home to the most accessible Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo. Here the animals live a wild and semi wild existence, allowed to roam freely but with the support and protection of rangers and carers if needed. Here’s our emotional encounter seeing the Orangutans in Borneo!
Two failed attempts to see Orangutans in Kuching at the Semmengoh Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo!!
Despite being in an a protected area these Orangutans often don’t show up, they are not in a zoo, or in any sort of enclosed space and are free to roam both inside and outside of the Semmengoh nature reserve. Many of the apes are entirely wild and never come anywhere near the areas in which visitors are allowed or if they do it is only when food is very scarce. This means that seeing Orangutans in Kuching is not guaranteed but it also makes the experience that much more rewarding! The Semmengoh Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo is a special place where each ape gets a different level of interaction.
Many here are considered semi-wild, this means that they are free to roam the reserve but often come over for the scheduled feeding times especially in the seasons where the fruit is less abundant in the forest. Many of these semi-wild orangutans were rescued from captivity and have been rehabilitated to be able to look after themselves in this environment. However they are also used to human assistance/ feeding and are also highly intelligent, meaning if they are injured or in need of help they will also know to come to the park HQ. This unique setting makes it the best Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo to easily and cheaply see these great apes.
The purpose of the centre is to allow the animals to be as wild as they each can be and live in their natural environment, to rehabilitate those that need it and gradually release them completely into the wild if possible. As time goes on less and less of the animals need human intervention which makes the Orangutans in Kuching a unique collection of animals all requiring different levels of observation and assistance. The centre provides care when and if the endangered animals need it, helping them to feed when food is low, providing them with medical assistance if one of them is sick and generally keeping them under different levels of observation. Here at Semmengoh Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo they really have a perfect balance between nurturing these animals back to the numbers they should be and also allowing nature to take its course.
So what this means is that they don’t always show up, there is only a 2 hour window twice a day where visitors are allowed into the reserve and at those times visitors are only allowed to go to the set feeding/ viewing platforms. This allows as little disturbance to the lives of the Orangutans as possible, but also makes seeing Orangutans in Kuching not guaranteed!! Some of the animals love seeing humans, others actively avoid the times when they know there are visitors!
On our first attempt the reserve was closed for a holiday we didn’t know anything about… the buses had also stopped running at this point and we had to hitchhike back!!! Our second attempt, a day later, we only saw one Orangutan that was far away in the trees… we were disappointed but at the same time this was so much more thrilling than a zoo or wildlife park but seeing Orangutans in Kuching was proving to be more challenging than we expected. However that is the nature of these animals having freedom so we really didn’t mind returning several times to the Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo to be sure to see them!
Seeing Orangutans in Kuching: The magical moment these amazing apes swing through the jungle and come out to feed!
Finally it was our third time at the reserve, walking down the familiar path ahead of the rest of the visitors we knew where we were heading and got there before anyone else. At first all was clear once again and that sinking feeling began to creep over us. We had come all this way, so far from home, to see these magnificent animals and nothing!! People in the hostel had told us of all these Orangutans in Kuching they had seen… but where were they!! Was our dream of seeing Orangutans in Borneo going to remain just that?!
Then suddenly an almighty crash came from the nearby forest. Branch after branch could be heard snapping and swaying as leaves fell and the trees swayed, but the culprit was still nowhere to be seen!! As the trees finally parted we spotted the bright orange fur of a large male against the dense green backdrop ready for his morning feed! This was it, as he got closer and closer we knew we’d finally get to see Orangutans in Kuching! He swung with a sort of comical elegance, a brilliant and yet haphazard strength and coordination from tree to tree before settling down on one of the wooden platforms! Our hearts jumped and sang, with lumps in our throats and misty eyes we were finally stood right in front of this most wonderful creature! Finally, the dream of seeing Orangutans in Borneo had come true!
We saw one of the huge mature alpha male apes with his long fur and huge face, a mountain of a creature stood tall towering over the Ranger offering bananas below. A quite intimidating sight but the gentle and caring nature he took the fruit from his hand just shows how much mutual respect there is here between the rangers and the animals for which they care. We also spotted a younger male and a mature female, both very similar in appearance as the larger face had not yet begun to develop in the juvenile. Both kept their distance from the older and more dominant male but given their smaller and more agile shape seemed to swing with much more speed and zest through the jungle vines and tree top platforms.
Orangutans in Kuching: Standing in awe as we watch these cheeky and fascinating endangered animals at the Semmengoh Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo
Standing here watching these amazing animals slowly move through the trees, shifting their weight from one arm to the other, hanging hilariously off a vine with a cheeky posture was a treat! We really were in awe of them, their strength, their agility, their different personalities and just how human they were. It wasn’t so much like looking at a different species, but like looking at an alternative version of ourselves. This was a real pitch yourself moment to see the Orangutans in Borneo!
You can see their thought process, how some shy away whilst others are bold and confident, you see them figuring things out and frankly being quite mischievous! Standing at park HQ after everyone else left the old woman of the pack snuck up on us, standing by a motorbike and fiddling with the handlebars before walk around to the hose pipe, turning it on and having a drink. One of the real highlights of seeing the Orangutans in Kuching was just observing how they behave and their uncannily human nature. They really are the most amazing and fascinating creatures to just sit back and watch, but not they’re not the easiest to photograph!
Visiting the Semmengoh Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo, A dream come true!
Seeing the Orangutans in Borneo was a lifelong dream of ours and it really truly lived up to our imagination. Witnessing these beautiful and charismatic apes up close in their natural environment is something that truly warms the heart.
The ranger told us many that were here have eventually been moved on to the Matang Wildlife Centre near to the Kubah National Park where hopefully they will be released into a completely wild setting away from human intervention. The future for these endangered animals looks bright here with much more protection and welfare in place and many programs designed to help repopulate the national parks of Borneo once again with these amazing animals. Seeing Orangutans in Kuching up close and in person really brings it home just how unique and special these creatures are and how much we owe them every opportunity to survive and thrive in a place they should be safe, their home on Borneo. It’s unthinkable that anyone would harm these charming and fascinating animals, but thankfully the kind rangers of Semmengoh are helping reverse the tide of their decline.
Oh and incase you were wondering. The word Orangutan doesn’t come from their orange fur, instead from the Malay / Indonesian words orang meaning “person” and hutan meaning “forest”, therefore meaning “person of the forest”.
Info on how to see Orangutans in Kuching:
Where to see the Orangutans in Borneo
Just 20km outside of the small city of Kuching is the Semmengoh Nature reserve, the best Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo to see them so easily.
The reserve is open twice a day for the feeding times between 0800 hrs – 1100 hrs and 1400 hrs – 1600 hrs. Its best to get there as early as you can and always stay after most of the other people have left too!
The park used to be open throughout the day and there were trails you could walk along as well. However this had to be stopped after one of the Orangutans attacked a visitor after being provoked. Now visitors have to come at feeding times and stay in certain areas for the protection of both animals and guests. However we feel they’ve got a good balance between allowing the public to see the Orangutans in Kuching and keeping the animals away from too much interaction.
There are also several other places to see Orangutans in Borneo but Semmengoh has to be one of the easiest, most accessible and cheapest. Another great way to see them in Sabah is to take a Kinabatangan River Tour where you can also spot many other native animals.
How much it will cost to see the Orangutans in Kuching and how to get to the Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo.
Take bus number 6 from the main bus waiting area in Kuching, which is near by the large mosque. The journey takes around 20 mins and costs RM4 per person per way (which is nothing!)
You should check the timetables beforehand but the buses generally run in conjunction with the opening times of the park and return shortly after it has closed.
Entrance to the reserve is really cheap at only RM10 per person (non Malaysians).
UBER or Grab taxi services are also available in Kuching and for a good price, be sure to have data on your phone to book the return or organise it with your driver when you’re dropped off. Hitchhiking is also common in Malaysia and we did hitch back to town after the buses stopped running!
Getting to Kuching itself is easy with Air Asia flights leaving from Kuala Lumpur several times a day and taking under 2 hours. You can pre book them below.
Book a tour experience to see the Orangutans in Kuching rather than visiting the Orangutan sanctuary in Borneo?!
Seeing the incredible Orangutans here is an amazing experience but it is also hard work spotting them sometimes and often hard to know if you are doing the right things around them. There are many other areas around Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and other areas of Borneo that offer a much more intensive and informative look at these wonderful creatures. Booking a tour is a great way to learn so much more about them with the help of a knowledgeable guide.
Seeing these incredible creatures in their natural habitat on your own can be a little hit and miss, we did go to the nature reserve twice, once was shut and once we saw but a flash of orange! If you are on a limited time but don’t mind paying a little more an organised tour, such as those offered by Nature Trek, which combined not only the incredible Orangutans but many other amazing experiences Borneo has to offer might be the best way to make the most of your time on this enchanting island.
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