Kingfisher at Night, Kinabatangan

Searching for Wild Orangutans in Borneo

My only plan for our three-week trip to Malaysia was to find wild orangutans in Borneo. I’ve long dreamed of seeing these incredible human-like creatures in their natural environment and was prepared to do whatever it took to achieve my goal. Our search for the so-called man of the forest took us deep into the jungles of Borneo; we sailed down rivers and spent hours trekking through tropical heat to try and catch a glimpse of these secretive and endangered primates, but did we succeed?

Jungles of Malaysian Borneo

The Search for Wild Orangutans in Borneo

Our quest to find wild orangutans began with a difficult but extremely rewarding trip to Batang Ai National Park which took us well off the beaten track. We stayed with a local family in their longhouse and camped out in the jungle, but although we had an incredible experience we didn’t see any orangutans. According to locals we would have had to trek for days into the dense jungle, camping along the way to have a chance of spotting any.

Kinabatangan River, Borneo

The WWF says that there are only between 45,000 and 69,000 orangutans left in the wild due to deforestation, hunting and the illegal pet trade. This means that sadly there are very few places left to spot wild orangutans in Borneo; one of which is Sabah in Eastern Borneo, which is where we headed next to continue our search.

Our Trip to Danum Valley Field Centre

On arriving in Sabah we stayed at Bike and Tours, one of the nicest guesthouses we’ve come across on our trip so far. Our hosts Simon and Tish cooked us an amazing Indian-Malaysian meal and told us about the Danum Valley Field Centre, a scientific camp located in a prime location for spotting orangutans. While it’s not really meant as tourist accommodation, Simon and Tish were able to arrange for us to stay there a couple of nights and even agreed to drive us over the next day.

Danum Valley Field Centre, Borneo

The field centre is set deep in the heart of Danum Valley next to a river; bearded pigs, deer and monkeys regularly wander into camp from the surrounding jungle. The first morning we were there we set our alarm for 5am and ventured out into the pale half-light of the jungle. Within minutes of shining the torch around we were met by two amber eyes gazing unblinkingly back at us – a deer perhaps. We slipped on the muddy uneven path until we got to a huge fig tree with a very precarious looking ladder attached leading up to viewing platforms. From there we could see the tree tops and part of the camp obscured in morning mist.

Bearded Pig in Danum Valley, Borneo

We spent the next day and a half trekking the jungle paths surrounding the camp searching for orangutans while being attacked by leeches and mosquitoes. Even though it was hot, sticky and exhausting work I loved exploring the maze of trees, spotting leaf monkeys and macaques, hearing the calls of birds and watching hornbills soar high above us – I felt so small surrounded by the vast infinity of the jungle.

Ladder in the Fig Tree

All through our visit to Danum we kept hearing maddening rumours of orangutan sightings but as the final morning of our stay arrived we still hadn’t spotted any and we were beginning to feel desperate – we had only one more destination left to search for the elusive creatures.

Cruising the Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan is supposedly one of the easiest places to spot wild orangutans in Malaysian Borneo. Sadly, the fact that the forest surrounding the Kinabatangan river has been so severely logged means that only a narrow strip remains on either side of the water, forcing all the animals into this small area. The best way to view the wildlife is to take a boat trip straight down the river; we arranged afternoon, night and morning boat trips, certain that we would finally spot orangutans on one of them.

Kingfisher at Night, Kinabatangan

We spent hours whizzing down the river, stopping to watch leaf monkeys, macaques and rare long-nosed proboscis monkeys in trees lining the river banks. We spotted all kinds of birds, from kingfishers to huge hornbills and we even floated just feet from a huge crocodile but sadly, we still didn’t spot any orangutans. Despite all the time and effort we’d put into our search, the hundreds of pounds we’d spent and miles we’d travelled we had somehow failed to find any wild orangutans in Borneo.

Crocodile on the Kinabatangan River

Visiting Rescued Orangutans in Sepilok Rehabitilition Centre

Although we were pretty disappointed about the outcome of our orangutan quest we did have some incredible experiences during the course of our journey. While our trip to Borneo had been all about orangutans to begin with, somewhere along the way it became more to do with the journey than the end destination. The experiences we had in the jungle, all the amazing people we met and the incredible animals we did see more than justified our visit to Malaysia.

Orangutans at Sepilok Rehabilition Centre

In addition, the fact that we didn’t spot any wild orangutans in Borneo just goes to show how endangered they’ve become. We learnt even more about the plight of orangutans when we visited the Sepilok Rehabilition Centre before we left Borneo. The centre rescues orphaned orangutans and attempts to teach them the skills they need to go back to the wild while still providing food and support for them if they need it.

Danum Valley Field Centre, Borneo

We got the chance to see some of these orangutans feeding when we visited Sepilok. Although the experience wasn’t what we’d hoped for, especially since we were surrounded by hordes of noisy and pushy tourists, it was still a magical experience seeing the rusty-red creatures swinging out of the jungle to feed. We’re determined to return to Borneo one day to see orangutans where they truly belong: in the wild.

We spent three weeks in Malaysia searching for wild orangutans in Borneo - here's the story of our quest from Danum Valley to the Kinabatangan river. Orangutans in Borneo | Borneo Orangutans | orangutan sanctuary borneo | sepilok orangutan sanctuary |  orangutans in the wild | wild orangutans | Borneo orangutan | orangutans in Borneo

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12 Comments
  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    Posted at 10:10h, 28 August Reply

    What a shame you weren’t able to see wild orangutans while in Malaysian Borneo—we didn’t do Danum, but we did do the Kinabatangan River (I believe we had 5 cruises) and while we saw plenty of other animals (including pygmy elephants!) we never once saw an orangutan. We had to go see them in Sepilok as well, which was nice, but as you said, not quite the same as seeing them truly wild. From what I’ve heard, if you really want to see wild orangutans, you’ll likely have to grit your teeth and head back to Indonesia (Sumatra specifically).

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:51h, 28 August Reply

      I’m glad to hear we weren’t the only ones who didn’t see orangutans at Kinabatangan; most people we met in Borneo told us we’d be pretty much guaranteed to see them there. You were super lucky seeing the pygmy elephants though. Now you mention Sumatra I wish we’d spent time there on our trip to Indonesia, I think searching for orangutans there would have given the Indonesia leg of our journey some purpose and we may have had a better overall experience in the country. We did love Malaysian Borneo though for all kinds of other reasons.

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  • Vicky Sampson
    Posted at 15:37h, 26 November Reply

    Hey guys, just want to say GREAT blog !!
    I work for a travel company in the UK and stumbled across it while looking up for info about Sagada caves, so thanks for that!
    And I’ve actually just resigned from boring office life and am heading back travelling in the new year so this is just the sort of inspiration and encouragement I need! 🙂
    Safe travels,
    Vicky

    • Amy
      Posted at 02:08h, 28 November Reply

      Hi Vicky, thanks for reading and commenting. Great to hear that you’re heading out on the road again, have a great time!

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