Best Places to Spot Orangutans in the Wild
If you want to see Orangutans still behaving like Orangutans, here are the 4 best places to spot them. Sightings & selfies not guaranteed!
Orangutans are some of the most awe-inspiring animals to see in the wild. They are highly intelligent - they can sense the weather and can be seen crafting makeshift shelters hours before we know it's about to rain, they're very emotionally aware, and one of our closest relative in the wild.
They're also seriously under threat as their natural rainforest habitats have destroyed to make way for palm oil plantation. It's been estimated that in the last 75 years, over 80 percent of the Sumatran orangutan species have been lost.
Orangutans are also naturally shy and solo animals, so their personality coupled with habitat loss means it's increasingly hard to see them in the wild. Many travellers who want to see these majestic animals will then tend to visit wildlife reserves or zoos to see them.
The problem is that many places frequented by travellers (that guarantee sightings of 'wild' Orangutans), aren't actually sustainable. What travellers are seeing are 'sanctuaries' where Orangutans have become so reliant on humans that they can never return to the wild.
When Orangutans get too close to humans, that closeness could endanger their lives in the wild. Instead of hiding from humans as they would naturally, they would get close to poachers. This is why at many 'sanctuaries' in Asia, Orangutans can never be returned to the wild and they remain in zoo-like captivity for the rest of their lives.
Places to Avoid
If you would like to see Orangutans in a sustainable way, and don't want to support places where Orangutans remain in zoo-like captivity, here are types of places to avoid:
1. Where travellers have posted selfies with Orangutans. Orangutans are by nature shy animals. If humans can get close to them, it may indicate that they have become dependant on humans, and are no longer wild.
2. Where Orangutans have exhibited aggressive behaviour toward humans. Orangutans are by nature not aggressive towards human - signs of aggression may indicate they are uncomfortable or in distress.
3. Where Orangutans have exhibited human-like behaviour. E.g. walking on two legs or eating human food may indicate that they are no longer wild.
4. Where Orangutan sightings are guaranteed. Orangutans are wild animals so if sightings are guaranteed, this may indicate that they are no longer wild. Many of the so-called 'sanctuaries' are more zoo-like, and actually have no intention of releasing Orangutans back into the wild - which means that visiting these places don't help grow the Orangutan population, and may in fact hurt it.
Sustainable Places to Spot Orangutans in the Wild
So where is a sustainable place to see Orangutans in Borneo? Here are some places where you get the chance to spot them in the wild (or semi-wild). Where we have listed reserves below, these are reserves where sightings are not guaranteed. Wild Orangutans are by nature very shy animals. Though they are curious about human travellers, they tend to hide themselves high up in the trees while observing us.
At the more sustainable places, you'll see a lot of frustrated reviews from travellers that they haven't seen Orangutans. We cannot stress it enough that this is a GOOD thing. This means that the Orangutans are not forced to interact with humans by their rangers, and their natural instincts are being respected.
So even at a reserve or over the course of a three-day trip, you might only spot a furry orange arm or a shy Orangutan peeking out at you behind thick rainforest leaves - if you're lucky. For us, that anticipation of perhaps seeing a furry orange arm is part of the thrill of heading into the wild!
Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia
This is our favourite wild Orangutan experience. Trekking through the Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra Indonesia is one of the most authentic explorer experiences. Searching for the red ape, craning your neck to spot them in the tall trees gives a true sense of adventure. Here you'll have a good chance of spotting the Orangutans (high up in the trees) during a 2-3 day hike, and you'll also get to camp & fish in the jungle!
Kinabatangan River, Malaysia
This one is a favourite of ours because not only do you get the chance to spot orangutans, you might also catch other unique wildlife such as pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys. This trip gives you the best chance of spotting wild Orangutans in Borneo as the wildlife here is congregated in a very small stretch around the river, rather than in a dense rainforest. You can also do this as a day trip from Sandakan, so it's the most accessible way to see wild orangutans in Borneo!
This is perfect for travellers who want a chilled safari and don't fancy a trek in the jungle!
Danum Valley, Malaysia
Danum Valley is one of the oldest rainforests in the world (dating back 130M years ago), more than twice as old as the Amazon Rainforest. It has been given a touch of glamour by Prince William and Kate Middleton's visit in 2012, but facilities here are still basic. Danum is perfect for travellers looking for a rainforest trek, and who won't be terribly disappointed if they don't spot an Orangutan. As the rainforest foliage is dense, the chance of spotting Orangutans here is slim unless you're very lucky!
Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Malaysia
Tabin is home to over 1000 wild orangutans and there is a reasonable chance of seeing an orangutan here. Though the chances here aren't as high as Kinabatangan, it's a wilder experience at Tabin and great for hikers and jungle explorers looking to fully immerse in nature. Other than Orangutans, Tabin is home to gibbons, red-leaf monkeys and macaques. You'll need 3 days here and you can trek to the mud volcano in the rainforest, go on night safaris and safari drives for wildlife spotting.
Semmengoh Nature Reserve, Malaysia
Semmengoh is the only place on this list where you don't get to see wild Orangutans, but instead get to see semi-wild ones. This is the most convenient way to try to see Orangutans if you prefer seeing them as close to their natural habitat as possible, but cannot spare a 3 day trek in the jungle.
The Orangutans at this reserve are not native to this area but they have been rescued and rehabilitated into the reserve. Here they do feed the Orangutans but the Orangutans are free to come for feeding, or find other food sources in the jungle.
Perfect for travellers who can spare only a half day to see Orangutans!