Watching orangutans can generally be done in two ways – in rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries, and in the wild. The former is the most popular option, as it offers a greater chance of seeing the orangutans. Some centres do have caged individuals – as they may need extra care, or be waiting for transferral to a more permanent home in the sanctuary. The big attraction are the twice-daily feeding times, where semi-wild orangutans who have been reintroduced into protected areas of forest clamber down from the canopy to visit the feeding platforms. You’ll see them up close – but interaction is not allowed, and sanctuary staff will do their best to keep wandering individuals away from the tourists. Sometimes you can also walk through the sanctuary forests with a researcher, who will give you more information on the orangutans – and the work carried out by the centres.
Tracking orangutans in the wild is quite a different experience. You may be on foot or in a boat, and jungle expeditions may last several days – with no guarantee of sightings. For this reason it is important to choose a knowledgeable, experienced guide who can talk about all the other wonders of the forest, rather than focusing on this one goal. If you do see them they may simply be orange blobs in the treetops – but those who have been lucky enough to observe this claim it is a far more moving and meaningful experience than seeing them in the sanctuaries.
Hardcore travellers also have a third option – volunteering. Contrary to popular belief, this does not include any handling of the orangutans themselves, as diseases are easily spread and long quarantine periods would be necessary.
Volunteer work generally involves cleaning out cages, and building fences, enclosures and structures for the orangutans to climb on – volunteers should be physically fit, especially given the heat and humidity.