Watching orangutans with kids in Borneo

Your kids won’t forgive you if you come all the way to Borneo without seeing an orangutan. Okay, so you may not spot one in the wild, but there are excellent rehabilitation centres on the island, with sightings likely during regular feeding sessions. Sabah is by far the most family-friendly option, thanks to the excellent Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, although Semenggoh Nature Reserve in Sarawak comes a close second.
If you’re determined to see these shaggy primates in the wild, come prepared for forest treks or river cruises to glimpse them in their natural habitat. Sightings are by no means guaranteed, but a good guide will help the kids to understand the importance of preserving this precious habit and help you spot a whole host of other wildlife to take the edge off any disappointment.

Orangutan reserves in Borneo

Seeing orangutans in the wild takes time and patience, so for sightings that are more or less guaranteed, you should head to a reserve, the best of which are found in Sabah and Sarawak. Reserves have education at their core, so the kids will have a chance to learn about the threats facing these fascinating creatures, as well as getting to see them playing and feeding.

Semenggoh Nature Reserve

Semenggoh is the biggest rehabilitation centre in Sarawak. It’s home to many injured or orphaned orangutans, as well as those that have been confiscated from owners keeping them as pets. Kids will love watching the orange-furred creatures swinging down from the trees for a fruity snack at the regular feeding times, and even a few hours here is bound to instil an interest in conservation.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Sepilok Rainforest Education Centre started life as an education resource for local schoolchildren and it’s still a fantastic spot for watching orangutans with kids. The massive canopy walkway is wobble-free and safe for even the smallest children, and while it can get busy at daily feeding time, children are often guided to the front of the viewing platform, where they can gaze down at the orangutans enjoying their morning or afternoon meal.

Watching orangutans in the wild

If you’d rather track orangutans in the wild, then Sabah’s Kinabatangan River is one of the best spots to do so. You can cruise along in a boat rather than walking – much easier for little legs – and while you’re not guaranteed to see orangutans, the proboscis monkeys, gibbons, macaques and hornbills – and if you’re lucky, pygmy elephants – should keep kids entertained. Gliding along the river at dusk, listening to the forest coming alive and looking out for orangutans in the trees, is a magical wildlife experience.
Sarawak has fewer opportunities to see wild orangutans than Sabah, but if you want to combine culture with conservation, it’s a brilliant choice. Batang Ai National Park spans the border with Indonesia, creating a huge 240km2 conservation area which protects plenty of rare species of wildlife – including the orangutan.
Local Iban communities play a leading role in the park’s management, surveying the orangutans and taking part in tourism activities, such as hosting visitors overnight in communal longhouses. You get here by river boat, after which trails of varying difficulty take you deep into the forest, so this is one for older and more adventurous kids.
Travel Team
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Volunteering with orangutans

Deforestation through logging and palm oil plantations has devastated Borneo’s rainforest canopies. Wild orangutans spend much of their lives travelling, sleeping and eating in trees. Volunteers are needed for wildlife observation tasks and data recording, as well as for planting saplings and protecting newly planted trees.

A volunteering holiday in Borneo might not strike you as an ideal family trip, but it’ll introduce your children to a completely different world in which they’ll work, live and eat alongside the Orang Sungai people and learn about wildlife and the environment. Volunteers as young as eight are accepted, and as long as they can follow instructions and don’t mind getting stuck in, they can be a genuine asset to the project. Far from being back-breaking all-day slogs, most of the work you’ll do requires just a couple of hours’ work per day.
Homestays are now a popular option on the Kinabatangan River over more expensive lodges. These are a great opportunity for tourists to taste local lifestyle/customs and for locals to benefit directly from the tourist dollar.
– Mags Nixon and her 10-year-old daughter, Minnie, went to Borneo with one of our expert volunteer holiday specialists, The Great Projects
This was a phenomenal experience, not least due to the professionalism, experience and commitment of the project staff on the ground. We learnt a great deal from beginning to end. It is an experience which I will remember forever.
– Vandna Kalia on our Borneo family volunteering holiday
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Fish Ho Hong Yun] [Intro: Charlie Marchant] [In the wild: Charlie Marchant] [Kinabatangan River: Sebastian Werner]