A trip to Borneo isn’t complete without seeing an orangutan! However, we want to promote ethical ways of doing so and avoid animal exploitation. If you’re traveling to Borneo, this is the ultimate guide for visiting the ethical Semenggoh Wildlife Center near Kuching, Malaysia.
Visiting Sabah instead? Check out THIS POST for other ways to ethically see orangutans in the wild!
A Little About Orangutans
Before we dive into visiting the center, we thought we’d share some information about orangutans in general. Their name is one of the most interesting parts. “Orang” is the Malay word for person, and “Utan” stems from the word for forest, so essentially, orangutan means person of the forest. How cool!
They are not only part of the Great Ape family but are the closest DNA relative to US! Sharing 96.4% of our DNA (and maybe a bit more if you’re a redhead like Ty), these soulful creatures are basically family.
According to this source, orangutans are the largest tree-living mammal in the world. With long arms and feet-like hands, orangutans can quickly climb trees and swing from branch to branch. They make large nests in the trees for lounging during the day and sleeping at night. The jungle provides them with fruit, bark, and insects that make up their diet (when their habitat is not destroyed…)
Interesting in learning more? Click here
The Sad Part
Currently, only two places are left in the world where orangutans exist in the wild. These two places include Borneo and Sumatra, two islands in the Pacific. Although the species used to stretch across Southeast Asia, due to many factors but mainly the loss of habitat, the animals are now very restricted in where they can live.
Orangutans lose more and more of their habitat every day from deforestation, palm oil plantations, and hunting.
What Can You Do?
One significant cause of habitat loss is the farming of Palm Oil. Palm oil is used in many everyday products, including packaged foods and makeup. We can work at home to avoid products that use palm oil or don’t source from an ethical location. Check the label for “sustainably sourced palm oil” to ensure you aren’t supporting the extinction of orangutans. Want to learn more about the effects of palm oil and habitat loss? Click here.
Looking for other ways you can help save the orangutans? Donate to organizations like this one or share this information with others.
Thanks for reading. Now let’s get into Semenggoh!
What is the Semenggoh Wildlife Center?
The Semenggoh Wildlife Center is a dedicated rehabilitation center for orangutans near Kuching in Malaysian Borneo. It is one of a few different places to see orangutans in Borneo. Located in the southern state of Sabah, Semenggoh Nature Reserve is the largest rehab center in the state.
The dedicated staff work to rescue and rehab the orangutans before releasing them into the protected nature reserve. The Semenggoh Wildlife Center is located within the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, where the great apes are free to roam, explore, and live in the wild.
The orangutans found in Semenggoh Wildlife Center are considered “semi-wild.” The orangutans in the reserve have been rescued or surrendered, rehabilitated, and released into the Semenggoh Nature Reserve. However, since opening in 1975 they have had multiple babies now growing up in the reserve as (semi) wild orangutans. We saw the two babies during our visit that had been born this year!
Over 30 orangutans live in the reserve but not all of them come around to eat at the feeding times.
Feedings at Semenggoh Wildlife Center
Semenggoh offers two feedings a day for the orangutans. Whether tourists are there or not, these are at 9 am and 3 pm daily. This is another reason the orangutans are considered “semi-wild.” Because they know to come for a free meal, they are “trained” in a way; however, it is entirely up to the animals.
Semenggoh Nature Reserve continued to feed the primates through the 2020 closure. We liked hearing this because we know a lot of times, animals are used at the expense of tourism. Since the forestry department of Sarawak runs this reserve, and they put so much emphasis on the life of the orangutans, we genuinely believe they are doing it for the good of the animals. Plus, they only charge 10 MYR a person, less than 2.50 USD, and the experience is worth much more!
Our Exciting Experience at Semenggoh Wildlife Center
After enjoying a morning of rest from our long day at Bako, we hopped on the free bus from Kuching’s city center to Semenggoh Nature Reserve.
It took roughly an hour to reach the center. We arrived around 1:30 and waited to buy our tickets. The ticket counter opened around 1:45 pm, and they cost 10 MYR per person. We had about a 20-minute walk to the feeding area and were excited for what might come.
Learning About the Center
The feeding didn’t start until 3 pm, so we had time to wait. There was some information to read about Semeggoh, and a park ranger came to talk to us about the orangutans.
We had talked to a german couple in Bako who had visited Semenggoh a few days before and saw five orangutans. We thought that was pretty lucky because as we listened to the ranger speak on our visit, he shared that we might not see any!
There’s no guarantee since the animals are wild. The park ranger said people have come seven times and not seen any until their last visit. I (Sam) started to get a bit scared we might see any, but Ty felt we might, so we kept our hope.
As mentioned above, the orangutans are not native to this area of jungle. Because they are rescued and released here, the jungle does not provide enough for the primates year-round. The orangutans can come to the feedings if they want to, as they live wild in the jungle.
If it is fruit season in the jungle (starting near September), the orangutans may not come to the feedings since there is enough food for them in the forest. However, more orangutans come out for feeding during the dry season because they cannot sustain themselves with what the jungle provides this time of year.
Introduction to the Great Apes
The ranger talked to us about the safety of the animals, explaining how we would view them and what to do if they came toward us. He shared that the old orangutan of the jungle, the 51-year-old lady (pictured later), walks along the forest floor because it’s easier for her. Same for the large alpha males. There are two large males at the park, and if they were to come close, they might fight, and we would need to move away or leave the area.
There was the main guide who talked to all of us, a group of about 35, and many park staff around to ensure everyone was making smart choices.
Around 2:30, we heard a call “HELLOOOOO” “YOOOO”… It was the rangers, calling the orangutans for the feeding. Everyone got excited, scanning the trees. Our guide told us to wait; he’d let us know when they were close. He carried a walkie-talkie and was told by other rangers what direction the orangutans might be coming from in the forest. There were two feeding platforms where we would have the chance to see them.
Our First Visitors
After what seemed like a forever-long wait (but wasn’t long at all), one was on the way. We gathered at the edge of the roped-off area and watch the first orange primate make his way down for some fruit. Hanging by a rope, he fed himself the bananas, holding on to them with his feet.
Our guide received another call on his walkie-talkie and said a momma and her baby were coming. We could stay to watch this one or head to the other platform with him. Ty and I were at his heels, shaking with excitement, “Are we really going to see a baby??”
She came out of the jungle, making her way to the platform, baby hanging tightly to her side (pictured below). They were so precious! Another one came to the same platform for a meal as well. They sat near each other on the rope, eating their fruits, and we admired them from the ground below.
Another call on the walkie-talkie, “an alpha male is coming,” the guide told us as we almost ran back to the other platform, right behind the ranger. We watched as the trees rocked back and forth. There was something big on its way.
One of Semenggoh’s alphas, Edwin, came out and made his way onto the feeding platform for a meal. He was huge!! A few other orangutans came out from the forest, taking turns getting their food.
Another alpha male was on his way. Our guide said to watch this one because if he doesn’t seem concerned or isn’t watching, that means he’s defending his territory and is not going to leave, which means a fight. We would have been at the edge of our seats if we were sitting. The trees started moving in the forest, and we were told that Ritchie, the other alpha, was making his way. Edwin continued to sit on the platform, enjoying his fruits.
Did he want to fight? We felt like we needed to tell him to be careful! At what seemed like the last moment, he got up and walked toward us. We all moved back far to let him through. Watching him walk down the sidewalk was so interesting! But soon, he disappeared into the forest.
A few smaller orangutans got to the platform and took their fruit up into the trees. Eventually, Ritchie, the other alpha, emerged, claiming his place on the feeding platform.
The Lady of the Jungle
Nearby the platform was the old lady of the jungle, Seduku, the 51-year-old orangutan. With fruit in hand, she came right up to the edge of where we could all go and sat there munching away. We got close but made sure only to go as far as the ranger said we could. He was making sure no one threatened her. She was beautiful, in a “how cool are animals” kind of way. When she looked into my (Sam’s) eyes, I teared up.
We think our lives matter so much, and they do, but so does hers. Animals belong in places like this, not behind a glass window or in a small enclosure. Yes, zoos make them accessible for people to see, but nowadays so does the internet. If you want to see an animal and aren’t willing to make the trip, you have google. They belong out here in the jungle or in their natural habitat.
Okay, back to Semenggoh.
Jungle of Life
Towards the end of our visit, many orangutans were up in the trees. We could count 7-8 at once and had seen others on the previous platform. Ty and I switched off taking pictures of them on each side of the visiting area with our phones and camera. We couldn’t believe this!
The alpha, Ritchie, climbed into a tree and sat there as the branches leaned toward us. We had to clear the area, moving far back, in case he came down towards us.
Our Farewell to Semenggoh Wildlife Center
At 3:40, the guide said that if anyone is planning to take the bus, we needed to head back since we had a 20-minute walk. How could we leave with all of them right here in front of us? But would we be stranded if we didn’t go? We looked back and forth at each other. If only we had 5, 10, or 20 more minutes…
But we had to leave. We walked backward, taking in all the orangutans one last time, then hurried back to the entrance to catch the bus. We had to all but run back, and thank goodness the bus was still there. However, as soon as we were seated, it took off. We had made it just in time.
“WOW” was all we could say. Although we understand the animals are drawn to the food, it was still amazing to see them in the semi-wild. These beautiful primates chose to come out of the jungle and visit the feeding platforms, and we were so lucky that many decided to come out that day.
Still, as I write this, almost a week after the experience, I am in awe of how lucky we were and how incredible this visit was!
Interested in other places to see wild orangutans in Borneo? Click HERE
Visiting Semenggoh Wildlife Center
How much does it cost to visit Semenggoh Wildlife Center for the feeding? For Non-Malaysian Visitors, the ticket cost is 10 MYR per adult.
One ticket allows you entry for one whole day, including morning and afternoon feeding times, if you decide to come back for the afternoon. We have been told you can also use your afternoon ticket the following morning but double-check with the staff.
How to Get To Semenggoh Wildlife Center and Nature Reserve:
By Bus (FREE)
Kuching offers a free bus service from the waterfront to the Semenggoh Nature Reserve (the bus also goes to the airport!). The app, “KUCHING METRO 2.0”, shares the bus schedule, the bus stops, and the bus’ GPS location so you can make sure you don’t miss it.
The bus runs every 2 hours from 6 am to 4 pm. It highlights which bus you will need to take to arrive at the Semenggoh Wildlife Center in time for the feedings and when to head back to the city. It takes roughly 1 – 1.5 hours to reach the center of the Kuching Waterfront.
We used the bus and it was easy to use and comfortable!
If you’d prefer a private ride, you can hire a taxi or use the Grab App (cheap and easy to use!) to get a taxi to Semenggoh Wildlife Center and Nature Reserve. This service starts at 48 MYR on Grab and is a 50-minute ride from the Kuching Waterfront.
If you use a taxi, discuss with your driver the cost of waiting for you in the parking lot or a pickup time. It may be challenging to hire a Grab when leaving the Semenggoh Wildlife Center.
Of course, if you have the option to drive yourself, you can drive your vehicle to the Semenggoh Wildlife Center. This drive will be roughly 50 minutes, and parking is available.
When to visit Semenggoh Wildlife Center:
Time of Day: As mentioned above, Semenggoh offers two daily feedings: 9 am and 3 pm. Make sure to arrive at least 20 minutes beforehand (preferably 30-45min). We can’t really say whether one time is better than the other because often, if the orangutans don’t come at one time they will most likely come to the other, so for your timing luck is kind of involved.
Time of Year: If you’re hoping to see orangutans, your best bet is to come during the dry season. We visited in August and saw many orangutans.
However, we strongly recommend avoiding fruit season (November to March). Because the jungle provides enough for the orangutans, they don’t come out for feedings often in this season. Although this is a great thing, your chances of spotting one at feeding time are extremely low at this time.
What to expect at SWC:
Caring Staff: At Semenggoh Wildlife Center, you can expect an informative and caring staff. The park staff member that spoke and guided us during our feedings was very knowledgeable about the animals. Each staff we interacted with was helpful and cared deeply for the animals.
Informative Signs: Near the feeding platforms, while you wait for an orangutan to arrive, you will find some large boards of information, as well as smaller papers about the orangutans that live in Semenggoh Nature Reserve. We spent time reading about the reserve and their work before feeding time.
Calls into the Jungle: Around 20-30 minutes before the feeding time the staff call into the jungle to let the orangutans know it’s feeding time if they are up for a meal.
Nothing and Something: Depending on the time of year you visit, you may want to lower your expectations for a visit. Even during the drier seasons, it’s never a guarantee. If you don’t see any, try not to be too down. Remember, these are wild animals, and if the jungle can provide for them that’s a good thing!
Things to Know BEFORE Visiting Semenggoh Wildlife Center
Do you need to book in advance to visit Semenggoh Wildlife Center?
Nope! We arrived by bus at 1:45 pm and bought our tickets. The staff let us in and we made our way to the feeding platform. We recommend arriving 20-30 minutes in advance due to the walk to the feeding platforms.
What’s the best way to see Semenggoh Wildlife Center?
Independently, don’t pay for an overpriced tour, mainly because that money isn’t going to the orangutans. So there’s no need to pay for a tour, especially when the city provides free transportation directly to the center. Using the bus and paying for our tickets, we spent less than $5 (2 people) for the entire experience, which was worth 10x that.
You could easily take the extra money you might spend on a tour and donate it directly to the wildlife center for their fantastic work!
What should you bring?
Patience and a camera! Remember, these animals have free roam of the jungle. During the fruit season mentioned above, you may not see any depending on the animals’ mood. Therefore, it is crucial to have patience. However, if you are lucky enough to see them visit the platforms, you will want a camera to capture these moments with the great apes!
Make sure not to bring any food or drinks into the reserve. If you have some, make sure they are packed in your bag, or you might have to leave them at the small stand across from the parking lot.
If you have any further questions, the staff are friendly and helpful!
Where is the Feeding Area?
You have to walk about 20 minutes to the feeding platform from the ticket counter unless you arrive by taxi. The walk is slightly up and downhill. It was not an easy flat walk to the feeding area. If you are a slower walker, make sure to arrive with plenty of time to get there.
By taking the bus, we had plenty of time to walk to the feeding platform upon arrival. However, we had to walk QUICKLY back to make the last bus since we stayed watching the orangutans until the last minute.
Are there restrooms?
Yes! There are restrooms near the parking lot. If you are walking from the ticket counter, you will pass them on your way to the feeding area.
Final Thoughts on Semenggoh
We hope you get a chance to visit Semenggoh Wildlife Center during your trip to Borneo. The staff cares about the animals, which shows by how they educate visitors during the feedings and talk about the animals.
Don’t miss out on this experience of having an encounter with orangutans in Borneo.
Interested in other places to see wild orangutans in Borneo? Click HERE