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The Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC) is one of the most accessible natural rainforest in Sabah. It sits by a lake at the edge of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve in Sandakan. RDC has been in operation since 1996 for environmental education purposes. Today, it is a 3-in-1 park (i.e. wildlife, bird and plant) for nature lovers and bird watchers where they can see the unique flora and fauna of Borneo. To students, it’s the best outdoor classroom to learn the rich biodiversity of rainforest ecosystem.
Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC) is managed by the Sabah Forestry Department and one of the most popular Environmental Education (EE) centers in Sabah. A pristine lowland dipterocarp and Mangrove forest with astounding 300 species of birds are recorded in the area.
The 4,300-hectare Sepilok-Kabili Forest Reserve has gained birders recognition worldwide for its iconic Bornean Bristlehead, Black & Crimson Pitta, Blue-headed Pitta, Giant Pitta, Black Hornbill, Rhinoceros Hornbill and more.
Visitors can walk along the trails and become acquainted with green giants such as the mengaris tree, one of the tallest tree in Borneo. Besides soaking up the sight and getting a good workout, visitors can refer to the interpretive panels along the trail, which has descriptions about unique residents of the forest.
Alert the little ones to keep an eye out for darting civets and flying squirrels (which can glide up to 100 Meters)! And lucky visitors have also spotted animals such as the elusive red leaf monkey, gibbon (the fastest moving primate in tree canopy), mouse deer, civet cat and many odd looking insects such as stick insect.
The tree that you must check out is Sepilok Giant, a Yellow Seraya tree (Shorea acatissima), which is about 65 Meters in height, with an estimated age of 800-1,000 years old.
Another tree worths a good look is Belian Borneo Ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri), the 7th hardest wood in the world.
Plant Discovery Garden
RDC also has a Plant Discovery Garden, which covers about 3 acres of land. This garden will make any botanist smile with its collection of hybrid orchids, arid land plants, aquatic plants, pitcher-plants, economic crops and tropical American plants.
There are colourful outdoor interpretive panels with descriptions of all the plants, which makes learning not only easy but also fun.
For serious learners, there are just too many local and exotic plants (flowers, herbs, spices, crops) to look at, just to name a few, peach palm, vanilla, tongkat ali, rubber, cassava, cinnamon, fig, and cycad (a living fossil and food of dinosaur).
The main attraction of RDC however, is of course the Canopy Walkway. Visitors can climb to the top of the observation towers and take in the breathtaking view from the 347-meter long and 25-meter high steel walkway.
The walkway is two meters wide, is very sturdy and can hold the weight of a large crowd. RDC has two towers that are named after the Bristlehead and Trogon and a single-column shelter called the Sunbird.
The designers of the canopy walkway made sure that it was not only safe for adults, but also for young children who are at kindergarten-level.
To the team at RDC, the younger children exposed to the wonders of Mother Nature, the better appreciation they will have for our rainforest.
The top platform of towers is about 17 Meters (56.5 feet) above the ground. Many birds, wildlife, fruits and insects live high on the tree, so these towers provide a great viewing point for bird watching and wildlife sighting. I’ve seen mother orangutan with her baby there before (see video).
Bornean Bristlehead normally feeds up in the mid and upper layer of tree canopy, and best seen from Canopy Walkway. You have higher chance of seeing them near Bristlehead and Hornbill Towers in RDC.
I’m very confident to say RDC has one of the best setup for bird watching in the world.
Many trees here are very old and over 50 Meters tall, most of these emergent trees are from the family Dipterocarpaceae, the main timber family of Sabah.
During fruiting season, you will see many birds and wildlife coming here for feeding.
Due to the tourist-friendly canopy walkway and nearby virgin rainforest where over 300 lowland bird species reside, RDC is really a haven for nature photographers and birdwatchers. RDC is also the most promising spot to see Bornean Bristlehead, the trophy bird species of birders, but you still need some luck. I saw it only once after three visits.
Many endemic, rare and colorful birds are active around RDC, for example, Bornean Bristlehead, Hornbills, Pittas, Kingfisher (8 species), Trogons, Malkohas, Leafbirds, Minivets, Spiderhunters (6 species), Crested Jay, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Broadbills, Woodpeckers, and Bulbuls. For full list, you may see this Checklist of Birds in Sepilok.
Some forest birds spend most of their time on canopy and best to be observed from RDC Canopy Walkway, while some prefers habitat in understorey and forest ground, so you need to explore the jungle trails for such birds. (Note: leeches might present during wet season)
According to birding community, the 1.9-KM Kingfisher Trail is very productive (many birds). There are many direction signages in the RDC trail network, so you should have no problem to get around. What I really like is – RDC also places many information panels in different spots to inform you what birds, trees and wildlife are (probable) nearby.
Inside the forest there are small ponds used by many birds as natural bird bath for bathing and drinking. Most birds only dip their wings to splash water on their backs. Parts of the bath is just about 2 inches deep, just enough for small birds. Keep an eye for Red-eyed Bulbul, Emerald Dove and Hairy-backed Bulbul there.
Garden birds such as sunbirds, spiderhunters and flowerpeckers are common too.
RDC is the most preferred venue for Borneo Bird Festival, which is usually held in Sep or Oct annually, the best visiting time for bird watchers who are looking forward for exciting activities such as bird race, talks, bird photography contest and exhibition.
The main visitor building has an exhibition hall that features the unique flora found in Sabah, plus the various icons in our animal kingdom including the Bornean pygmy elephant, orang utan, proboscis monkey and many more.
Visitors can also find information on reptiles and the main groups of birds. The building also has a multi purpose hall, which is often used for talks, screenings and other activities.
Besides animals, visitors can browse good collections of plant, fruit, tree and insect specimens in the hall. The information is presented in gallery style, with a lot of beautiful photographs with minimal text, available in English and Malay languages.
This Exhibition Hall is air-conditioned, so I love to come here after a long walk under hot sun outside LOL (and for the toilet too).
I must say the Exhibition Hall does a very good job in giving visitors an interesting overview of Borneo’s nature.
The infrastructure of RDC is quite well-thought, this makes RDC an excellent attraction, as well as a great location to organize mid-scale events.
Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC) is open from 8am to 5pm every day, but the trails and canopy walkway close at 8pm, so some visitors can do night walk and evening birding. RDC is a park opens to public, any walk-in visitor can buy a ticket to enter (see ticket prices below).
|Adult (18 & above)||RM7||RM15 (≈USD$4)|
|5-17 years old||RM3||RM7 (≈USD$2)|
|Below 5 years old||FREE||FREE|
All proceeds from ticket sales are used to organize environmental education programmes for students, teacher training courses and other environment-related activities.
Most wildlife are nocturnal. You may not see a lot of wildlife during daytime in RDC, but a night walk there would probably give you some pleasant surprises. Depend on your luck, you would see civet, moonrat, Malay badger, sleeping birds, glow worm, owls, stick insect, firefly, frog, bearded pig, flying lemur, etc. You hit jackpot if you spot Bornean Tarsier or Slow Loris, the most mysterious primates of Sabah. Known as Ghost Monkey locally, Bornean Tarsier is the smallest primate of Borneo and has huge eyes bigger than its brain.
Night Walk is available from Mon to Fri only (conducted between 6pm-8pm), you can register for the walk at ticketing counter (before they close at 5pm). The fee is RM30 (≈USD$8.50) per adult and RM15 (≈USD$4) per child (5-17 years old) for a minimum of 2 hours, RM15/person for each additional hour. A minumum of 4 visitors (but no more than 10) is required to form the night walking group, or you have to pay for the full amount RM120 (≈USD$34). Do bring torch-light (flashlight) and raincoat with you. You can take photos but no camera flash is allowed for small animals.
How to get there
The Rainforest Discovery Center is located at Sepilok, Sandakan, Sabah, about 25 KM to the west of Sandakan City (see Location Map). Public transport to Sepilok is available readily and the journey takes about 45 to 50 minutes one way. You can hire a taxi for a return trip for about RM100 per car (≈USD$28)(negotiable).
RDC Shuttle Service (within Sepilok Only)
RDC Shuttle Service (within Sepilok only) is available only when licensed taxi not around and depend on staff availability. It’s no guarantee but good to know this option anyway. The standard rate is RM10 (≈USD$2.50) per car. You can request for transport in following time:
9am-5pm: enquire for taxi or shuttle service at ticketing counter
5pm-8pm: enquire shuttle service at security hut
Photos taken in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo
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Imagine a baby orangutan loses its mother due to deforestation and illegal poaching. This orphaned orangutan is traumatized and in distress. Without help, its chance of survival is slim. The population of Bornean orangutan has been dwindling by 50% in the past 60 years. Currently, only 45,000-50,000 orangutans left on Borneo and 6,000 on Sumatra. In Sabah, there are about 10,000 orangutans in the wild.
The name “Orangutan” was derived from the Malay word Orang Hutan, which means the “Man of the Forest”. Orangutan is the only ape of Asia and found only in Sumatra and Borneo. Though orangutans won’t give you an eye-roll if you mistakenly call them monkey, people would laugh at you as apes have no tail. I won’t object if you say orangutan is my “cousin” because orangutan is the most human-like primate and its DNA is 97% similar to ours. And orangutans know what is love.
Orangutan is endangered and a fully protected wildlife in Malaysia. Harming orangutan or keeping it as pet is against the law, offender will face a mandatory prison sentence of six months to five years and/or fine up to RM50,000.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
However, law protection isn’t enough, we need a long-term conservation project, so Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center was established in 1964 to train orphaned orangutans to become self-reliant in the rainforest when they grow up. The Center is also the first orangutan sanctuary in the world to dedicate itself to the rehabilitation of orangutans.
For over 50 years, 758 orphaned baby orangutans, who are the victims of logging, plantations and illegal pet trade, are rescued and brought to this Center. About 81.6% of them are successfully rehabilitated and 66% of these orangutans were released to protected forest reserves such as Tabin. (The released orangutan will be monitored for week, to ensure it can survive on its own.)
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is Not a zoo, the orangutans here aren’t treated as pet either, so expect no animal show and touching of orangutan. The Center is located within the protected Kabili-Sepilok Virgin Forest Reserve, which covers an area of 4,294 Hectares (43 KM²) and serves as a natural classroom for orangutans.
A baby orangutan stays with its mother for 7 to 10 years. During these vital stage, the mother will teach her young everything it needs to know to survive. Young orangutans, which are not parented, don’t have the ability to find food, build nest and climb. The Center takes the role as their mother to turn them into wild orangutans.
The best time to see orangutans is during the feeding time at 10am and 3pm every day. The food is meant to be “supplement” to orangutans, before they can live fully independent in the forest.
Visitors are not allowed to carry their bag, food / drink and insect repellent (poisonous to orangutan if they get ahold of it) to the forest. Orangutans and monkey are highly curious and won’t hesitate to rob any object they find alluring. Visitors can store and lock their bags (for free) in locker of visitor building. Still, you must remain vigilant because your smartphone or shiny jewellery could be a target.
After ticket checkpoint, visitors need to walk about 200 Meters on a raised wooden boardwalk that leads to the orangutan feeding platform. The walk takes about 10 minutes, so you better move earlier to be on time for the feeding (at 10am or 3pm). Along the way, you will see many towering tropical trees, the perfect habitat for orangutans.
Don’t get excited if you see wild orangutan or macaque on the boardwalk. Never look into the eyes of macaque, as this is perceived as a challenge and provokes them. Whatever the tourism posters show you, adult orangutan is not cute. They can grow up to 1.4 Meter tall and weight up to 100 Kg. You really shouldn’t upset this beast which is 3 times stronger than human. Usually these fellows will leave you alone, otherwise you can turn back calmly and ask for help from rangers who station nearby.
Orangutans make nests for bedtime every day by breaking and folding branches in the treetops. Just look up and I’m sure you will see some orangutan nests near the boardwalk. Sometimes you would see hornbill and eagle flying over the tree canopy.
The Center is visited by an average of about 80,000 tourists annually. You will see hundred of orangutan fans waiting eagerly to see orangutan the first time at the viewing platform. It’s important to keep quiet to avoid scaring the orangutan away. Normally, you will see 4 or more orangutans come for the free food. However, during fruiting season, you would possibly see none. This might disappoint you, but you should feel happy that they can find enough food on their own.
Sometimes it’s the naughty pig-tailed macaque that does the opening. The big red buttock of female macaque would stir up the crowd, “OMG, look at her butt!” “Ew.. That’s gross.” In fact, the swollen hip is a sign of ready to mate. To male monkey, she is as hot as Nicki Minaj LOL.
Orangutan is very good climber but clumsy in walking. There are a few long ropes that are used by orangutans to approach the feeding platform about 15 Meters away from tourists. At some points, someone would notice the movement of swaying ropes and blurts out “it’s on the way!”
One by one, these beautiful reddish-brown creatures swing along the ropes and land on the feeding platform. Most of them are juvenile above 5 years old. If you are lucky, you would see mother orangutan carrying her baby for extra diet there.
They are given bananas and milk most of the time, sometimes sugar-cane, watermelon, vegetables, etc. The Center deliberately repeats the similar menu every day, a tactic to make orangutans bored of the monotonous food and more motivated to forage for other fruits in the jungle.
Orangutan is a solitary and quiet animal. Most of them focus on eating, and occasionally playing or arguing with their mates. One or two greedy orangutans would stuff 4 or 5 bananas in their mouth, grab another bunch in their feet then go away.
Every orangutan there has a name, for example, Mimi, Mariko, Kam Chung and Rosa, and they all have unique faces and personalities. Some are introvert, some are hyperactive and some are bully. Orangutans reach maturity at 7 – 10 years of age and can live up to 40 years old.
The crowd is so awed by the playful and adorable orangutans. One orangutan couple even practiced mating after meal. You can watch the following video for the hilarious moments:
By the age of 10, orangutans will learn to identify more than 200 different food plants. They keep a memory map of location of different fruit trees and their fruiting time, and they would not visit feeding platform anymore. The rehabilitation costs about RM8,000 (≈USD$2,200) per orangutan per year (include toy)!
The feeding usually ends after 30 minutes. After all orangutans left, the pig-tailed macaques would have a family picnic at the platform to finish the leftover.
After the orangutan feeding, you can proceed to the Outdoor Nursery, or turn back to watch a 30-min video (in English) on orangutan conservation, which is played at 8:30am, 11am, 12pm, and 3:30pm in the Visitor Information Center.
Ticket (Conservation Fee)
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is open to public every day (include weekends and holiday), so any visitor can walk in and buy a ticket to enter. No prior booking or application is required. The ticketing counter is open at 9am-11am and 2pm-3:30pm. The following are the ticket fees, which they call Conservation Fees (prices in RM, as of Aug 2015):
|Adult (above 17 years old)||RM5||RM30 (≈USD$8.50)|
|17 & below||RM2||RM15 (≈USD$4)|
|Camera & Video Cam||Personal: RM10 per unit (≈USD$2.80)|
|Commercial: Professional Filming / Photography (with 400mm lens and above). RM1,000-RM10,000 (ask the Center)|
The ticket is valid for the whole day, and you can use it for entering feeding area and Outdoor Nursery. If you are crazy about orangutan, you can go at two feeding times with the same ticket on the same day.
Open in Oct 2014, the new Outdoor Nursery Building is an excellent addition to the Center. It is connected to feeding platform with 300-Meter boardwalk. Just follow the crowd and signage after the orangutan feeding and you will reach the building, it’s quite a long way though.
You don’t need to buy another ticket to enter Outdoor Nursery, a double-value to your tour. In the past, to avoid human contact and stressing the orphaned orangutans, Outdoor Nursery was a no-entry zone to tourists. Now visitors could sit comfortably in a hall to watch baby orangutans in action. We love them but we don’t want them to be so attached and used to human.
Outdoor Nursery is a play school for baby orangutans 5 to 7 years old to learn to climb. Orangutan is arboreal animal that spends most of its time on trees searching for food and building nest, so climbing skill is crucial for its survival. The Center won’t stop (actually they encourage this) young ape from exploring the forest on its own.
Same as juvenile orangutans, baby orangutans are also naughty and playful. Everyone laughed when they saw the orangutans fooled around with their trainers. In the video below, you will see a mischievous orangutan grabbed and pulled the hair of a volunteer:
The Outdoor Nursery has large indoor halls with about 100 seats. Visitors can overlook the play area through the large window, but the orangutans outside can’t see us. They still can hear us if we are too noisy.
The baby orangutans are so cute, but each of them has a sad story. Most of them were admitted to the Center in malnourished, traumatized or injured condition, after they lost their mother. Under good care for some time, they will be paired up with an older orangutan to help them to develop the survival skills. This buddy system is used to replace a mother’s teaching and it works quite well.
You can be part of the conservation effort to prevent this charismatic ape from extinction. You may Adopt an Orangutan, which starts from a contribution of RM200 (USD$70) per year. They will send you the update and photos of your adopted “cousin” every 6 months. You also can work as a volunteer at the Center for an once-in-a-lifetime experience with orangutan.
How to get there
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is located 25 KM to the west of Sandakan City (see Location Map). Public transport to Sepilok is available readily and the journey takes about 45 to 50 minutes one way.
The following is the departure time of regular shuttle between Sandakan and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. The bus fare costs RM4 (≈USD$1) per person one way:
Sandakan City → Sepilok: 9am, 11:30am, 2pm, 5pm
Sepilok → Sandakan City: 6:30am, 10:30am, 12:30pm, 4pm
Tel: +60 12-8067067, +60 17-8632684
Or you can take the mini-bus (route: Batu 14) near to the bus terminal of Nak Hotel in Sandakan.
You can hire a taxi for a return trip for about RM100 per car (≈USD$28)(negotiable). There is also a taxi stand in car park of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.
Overall, the Center has adequate amenities for tourists as it is one of the most developed destinations in Sabah.
The public toilet of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is probably the best in Sabah. It’s air-conditioned and handicapped-friendly. Visitors don’t need to pay any entry fee.
In the Center, there is a Sepilok Cafeteria where you can buy food (e.g. sandwiches, fried rice, noodle, omelettes), snacks and drink. It’s convenient but the place is quite crowded, you can expect a long queue to cashier counter during busy hours.
There are many other things you can explore and do at Sepilok, for example, Rainforest Discovery Center, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center, bird-watching, jungle trekking, so you may like to spend a few days there. Below are a few accommodations that are only a 10 or 15 minutes walk away from Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center:
1. Sepilok Jungle Resort
I stayed there before. The accommodation is quite affordable and very popular among tourists. This resort has 45 air-conditioned rooms and 15 fan rooms ranging from dormitory, standard, family to deluxe room with balcony. Though the rooms and facilities are a bit old, the nice swimming pool, lake and garden make it up.
Rates: RM38 per person – 190.80 per room (≈USD$10-50) (Online Booking available)
Tel: +60 89-533031, +60 89-533051
GPS Coordinate: 5.866024, 117.951640 (see Location Map)
2. Sepilok Forest Edge Resort
It’s about 700 Meters away from Sepilok Oran Utan Rehabilitation Center. The resort comprises of stylish Malay design chalets around green surrounding and hills with nice view. It has long house accommodation for budget travellers, as well as standard, family and superior chalets.
Rates: RM40 per bed – RM590 per chalet (≈USD$11-168) (Online Booking available)
Tel: +60 89-533190, +60 89-533245, +60 13-8859890
GPS Coordinate: 5.867155, 117.950294 (see Location Map)
3. Sepilok Nature Resort
Sepilok Nature Resort has fully air-conditioned twin bed chalets feature beautiful lake or jungle view verandah and private bathrooms with hot water. The accommodation fees for Double / Twin Room start from RM265 (≈USD$75)
Photos taken in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo
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