The best places to see orangutans

Read our factfiles on Sumatran and Bornean orangutans and find out where to observe them in their natural habitat.

Orangutan by Stuart Jamieson.

Wild orangutans occur in scattered populations in a fraction of their former range. Rehabilitated individuals are being released in areas where the species has died out (see map below). 

Bornean orangutan: Pongo pygmaeus
Sumatran orangutan: Pongo abelii
The basics
  • Height: 1.2–1.5m.
  • Weight: Adult male: 50–90kg; adult female: 30–50kg.
  • Appearance: Long-limbed ape with reddish hair. Sumatran species is paler, with a longer beard and narrower face.
  • Diet: Mainly fruit; when fruit is scarce, takes leaves, shoots, bark and insects.
  • Life-cycle: Female breeds for first time at 10–15 years, producing a single infant once every 5–10 years. Young are usually independent after 3–4 years.
  • Habitat: Rainforest and peat-swamp forest; can survive in secondary forest (cleared areas that have regrown)
  • Lifespan: Up to 35 years in the wild.
  • Status:
    Bornean: Endangered
    Sumatran: Critically Endangered.
An encounter with a free-ranging orangutan remains one of the world’s great wildlife experiences. Nick Garbutt reveals the best locations to see red apes in the wild.
Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah, Malaysia
Danum Valley forms part of a 400km2 rainforest reserve and harbours some of the richest concentrations of wildlife anywhere on Borneo, including healthy populations of orangutans.
The best place to stay is Borneo Rainforest Lodge on the banks of the Danum River. It has a network of well-laid-out trails, and resident guides who will help you to spot wild orangutans, red leaf monkeys and Bornean gibbons within a stone’s throw of your room.
Birdwatching is excellent, too: open areas attract mixed flocks, while noisy wreathed, wrinkled and rhinoceros hornbills are conspicuous near fruiting trees.
An early morning stroll on the canopy walkway provides spectacular treetop views and the chance of seeing orangutans or other primates.
Night walks offer windows into the world of the forest’s nocturnal creatures, including giant flying squirrels and leopard cats. You might also spot Borneo’s smaller primates, the slow loris and western tarsier.
Click below for further information
Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Sabah, Malaysia
The Kinabatangan is Sabah’s longest river, and in its lower reaches forms a flood-plain ecosystem of almost unparalleled richness.
This is not only a great destination for seeing wild orangutans, it is probably the best place in the world to spot proboscis monkeys and Bornean pygmy elephants, as well as a vast array of birds and reptiles.
The majority of the lodges are in Sukau, some 80km upriver from the coast. The wildlife is remarkably tolerant of people on the water – important, because most of your time will be spent in boats.
Encounters with orangutans, both along the main river and its tributaries, and around oxbow lakes, are reasonably frequent. If there is a large tree in fruit, one or more individuals can take up residence nearby for several days. Long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques are common, too.
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Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan, Indonesia
Lying just inland from the south coast, Tanjung Puting covers 3,040km2 of lowland dipterocarp and peat-swamp forest. It is the largest protected area in Central Kalimantan and one of the most important sanctuaries for wild orangutans on Borneo.
Tanjung Puting was first made famous by the long-term orangutan research carried out by Dr Biruté Mary Galdikas at Camp Leakey, in the north of the park, which became one of the island’s foremost rehabilitation centres.
In 1995, releases into the park stopped. Today it supports a thriving population of wild and previously released orangutans. Rehabilitated individuals are now introduced into Lamandau, a recently gazetted nature reserve created from an expired logging concession to the west of the national park itself.
To date, more than 100 rescued animals have been reintroduced there, along with some wild adults relocated from other sites.
In addition, Tanjung Puting hosts a wide range of other wildlife. Watch out for sizeable populations of proboscis monkeys, agile gibbons and silvered langurs, plus birdlife including several species of hornbill, egrets, herons and storks.
Access is via Pangkalan Bun, which has the nearest airport, or the port of Kumai, then by boat to Tanjung Harapan (2½ hours). The park and Camp Leakey are a further two hours along the blackwater Sekonyer River.
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Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia
This is the only place where you have a realistic chance of seeing Sumatran orangutans, notably at Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre near the village of Bukit Lawang.
Since the centre opened in 1973, more than 200 successful reintroductions have been achieved. That programme ceased in 1996 due to a lack of funding and overpopulation of the apes in the immediate area, but wild and rehabilitated animals remain in the vicinity and return regularly to a feeding platform, providing excellent viewing opportunities.
You can encounter free-ranging orangutans on walks along the network of forest trails.
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Most visitors to Borneo and Sumatra head for rehabilitation centres where sightings are virtually guaranteed. There are six major centres in Borneo: one in Sabah, two in Sarawak and three in Kalimantan.
These are the best:
  • Sepilok Forest Reserve and Orangutan Sanctuary, Sabah, has rehabilitated more than 100 orangutans since it opened in 1964. Twice-daily feeding sessions attract apes to a platform in the forest for a free meal. Guided walks through Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve are also worthwhile. Stay at Sepilok Nature Resort or Sepilok Jungle Resort.
  • Rasa Ria Nature Reserve, Sabah, is a small centre in an area of secondary forest north of Kota Kinabalu. Linked to Sepilok, it is a collaboration between the hotel and Sabah State Wildlife Department, and forms part of the Rasa Ria Shangri-La Hotel complex. Young orangutans begin their rehabilitation here before being moved to Sepilok.
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