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In Search of Orangutans

By Kati Taylor

The quiet and curious orangutan is one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. With the collective name ‘orangutans’ directly translating as ‘people of the forest’, it’s easy to see why scientists and wildlife lovers alike are constantly intrigued by their gentle, human-like mannerisms.

An orangutan eats a banana in Sepilok, Borneo

Orangutans once thrived in forests across South East Asia, but severe habitat loss due to the rise of palm oil plantations, and the popularity of the illegal pet trade, has caused their numbers to plummet. They are now only found in Borneo and Sumatra, meaning that conservation efforts have never been more vital. Charities like WWF are leading the fight against their decline, in an appeal to make palm oil production more sustainable and place orangutan habitats under formal protection.

The rainforest canopy of the Danum Valley, Borneo

It’s reached a crucial point for the survival of our closest living ancestors. If you want the chance to see some magnificent orangutans for yourself, here are our top recommendations for where to go, when to go and how to get the best out of your wildlife experience…  

Gunung Leuser National Park

Sprawling across almost 8000 square kilometres of Northern Sumatra, Gunung Leuser has managed to remain a wildlife haven, relatively overlooked by the average tourist. Celebrated for its thick biodiversity, the park is home to 105 species of mammal including tigers, elephants and, of course, orangutans. Populations have steadily increased since the 1970s when a rehabilitation centre was opened by a pair of Swiss zoologists. Although it ceased operation in 1996, over 200 captive orangutans were reintroduced into the ready-made ecosystem, and a daily feeding system is still in place to support them.  

An orangutan sits on a branch in the Gunung Leuser National Park

When to go: Gunung Leuser sees a very high annual rainfall and it can be hard to dodge the sudden downpours. For the best chance at dry weather, head to the area between December and March.

How to see it: To get the best out of your Gunung Leuser experience, try and visit the park mid-week to keep crowds to a minimum. Feedings take place every day at 8am and 3pm and, to boost your chance of up-close sightings, enter the park with a local guide. Not only can they tell you all about the ecosystem around you, they also know the best viewpoints for you to have the surroundings to yourself.

Two orangutans hang from a branch in the Gunung Leuser National Park

Tanjung Puting

With its popularity soaring in recent years, Tanjung Puting has become one of Indonesia’s most prominent wildlife hot spots. Labelled a protected reserve by the Dutch in 1939, the park gained national acclaim in the 1970s thanks to the work of Birute Galdikas, one of the primatologists trained by Louis Leakey. Despite its rising profile, this jungle-clad gem is well worth adding to your itinerary, as orangutan sightings are pretty much guaranteed. The park offers the opportunity to get up close to these captivating primates and observe their wanderings while sharing the experience with knowledgeable local guides. With colourful birdlife and Proboscis Monkeys also frequenting the park, it’s the perfect excursion for any wildlife lover.

A baby orangutan on its mother's back in Tanjung Puting, Indonesia

When to go: June through September is peak season and there are now over 60 klotoks (traditional boats) running tours around the park. For a quieter experience, and to catch orchids in bloom, plan your trip between January and March.

How to see it: Tanjung Puting is best experienced over the course of several days, travelling upriver on a traditional klotok. Cruise through a scenic jungle-fringed setting and spend the nights on deck, falling asleep under the rainforest canopy.

A klotok boat sails down the river in Tanjung Puting, Indonesia

Danum Valley Conservation Area

A jewel in Sabah’s wildlife crown, Danum’s raw and untrodden rainforest boasts one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. With a new plant species discovered here every week and its canopy stretching up to 70 metres skywards, Danum’s 500 orangutan residents are just part of the reason why nature enthusiasts have it earmarked. The park’s canopy walkway brings you to the heart of the action, allowing you to observe your new orange friends at close quarters. Danum is best explored on foot and the park’s lodges have signposted trekking routes for visitors to follow. In terms of other wildlife, night drives can offer sightings of clouded leopards as well as pygmy elephants, gibbons and marbled cats.

An orangutan hanging in the trees of the Danum Valley Conservation Area

When to go: Danum is a great wildlife destination all year round but for the best chance at dry weather arrange to visit between May and September.  

How to see it: Danum is a dense jungle labyrinth and accommodation options are sparse. There are currently three lodging options available in the valley and all must be booked in advance. This cap on visitors, however, has kept the park wild, untamed and ripe for exploration. For a real experience, take a tour with one of the local scientists to learn about the area’s unique biodiversity and the conservation efforts surrounding it.

A treetop canopy in the Danum Valley, Malaysia

Make it happen

If you’re ready to see orangutans in the wild, send an enquiry to our local experts. If you’re interested in Indonesia or Borneo, contact our local experts. They can help you plan the bespoke trip of a lifetime! Alternatively, if you’d like more advice or have general enquiries, call us in office on 0117 353 7898.