Volunteering with Orangutans and Sun Bears in Borneo

A rescued orangutan in Matang Wildlife Centre

Last summer I fulfilled a dream of mine, volunteering with orangutans in Borneo. I booked my trip through The Great Projects by myself and joined a group. This was my third trip voluntering with wildlife. Previously I’ve volunteered on a game reserve in South Africa and with wild elephants in Sri Lanka. It was a little different from my usual volunteering trips as it included both volunteering and touring around Borneo. I chose a mixture of both because I desired to see more of the country- we stayed in national parks and in the middle of the rainforest among other places which were all incredible, unique experiences.

One reason I booked this particular experience was because of the lack of contact with animals. Projects which offer cuddles with orangutans or lions are NOT ethical. Read about ethical volunteering around the world here. There are some volunteering experiences which do include ethical animal interactions but it’s difficult to tell in advance so I try to opt for places which offer no animal interaction at all.

I was volunteering with orangutans and sun bears at Matang Wildlife Centre for a few days at the beginning of the tour. Usually I tend to spend a couple of weeks in a place volunteering so a few days didn’t feel like enough time for me. I’m overjoyed that I saw so many beautiful locations in Borneo but I wish I’d spent more time with the orangutans as I adored the experience. I’m hoping to go back in future to do just that.

Matang Wildlife Centre

Matang Wildlife Centre is located in Sarawak which is the Malaysian part of Borneo. When my group and I arrived, we got a tour of the centre which is home to many other animals rescued around Borneo including rhino horn bills, gibbons, clouded leopards, crocodiles and more.

A crocodile who had been rescued

If wandering around the centre without a guide, one might confuse Matang for a zoo because of the animal cages, however it is not a zoo in the slightest. It is a dedicated centre which rescues animals and rehabilitates and releases them into the wild where they can. Most individuals there were confiscated from the illegal pet trade. Unfortunately, some animals at the centre could not be released into the wild, for example those that were too badly injured. Another problem was if they were too humanised. One orangutan at the centre was one which they previously tried to release but kept leaving the forest to be near humans.

An orangutan carrying leaves

An animal which I didn’t previously know much about was the sun bear yet I immediately fell in love with them. Sun bears are fairly small because they have no natural predators in Borneo (apart from humans!) so they had no need to evolve any bigger. Their muscular bodies were so impressive and hearing some of their rescue stories was heart breaking.  There was one sun bear called Sinead who had noticeably less fur than the others. She spent the first eighteen years of her life inside a tiny cage. She was so stressed and under-stimulated that she scratched all her hair off and arrived at the centre completely bald.

A rescued sun bear

My favourite part was being introduced to the orangutans. There were a number of ages and characters which were all so fun to watch. My favourite orangutan was the youngest, at 5 years old, and called Bunyal. He was found as a baby floating down a river. It was assumed that his mum was shot because a mother orangutan would never abandon her baby. I’m so grateful that the sanctuary were able to save this gorgeous orangutan. He looked so happy swinging around on the monkey bars and showing us his bum!

Orangutan swinging from the monkey bars

There was another orangutan called Simingal who we could easily identify as he was the one who enjoyed standing up high and clapping his hands above his head. He arrived at the centre with three bullets inside him because, again, his mother was shot. Only one could be removed though because the others were too close to his organs. Fortunately, he is healthy now and he is the orangutan that they previously tried to release who I mentioned above.

Simingal standing tall at Matang

On our first evening at the centre, we had a delicious home cooked meal. They cater really well for vegans/ vegetarians and the food was outstanding. After dinner we had a talk about unethical animal experiences around the world and how to avoid them. I thought this talk was extremely valuable and a great thing to include in the trip.

A Typical Day Volunteering with Orangutans and Sun Bears

A typical day included waking up to have breakfast which would be followed by a briefing about the day. We’d then start our day of activities. One morning we walked through the jungle with someone from the project to find fallen leaves and plants. We were told to find the biggest leaves possible and that we’d later use these for the orangutan and sun bear enrichment. We were told about different plants that surrounded us. One of my favourites which we saw were nicknamed ‘monkey cups’ because they can fill with water which monkeys often drink from.

Collecting leaves for making enrichment

After our walk through the jungle with our arms full of fallen leaves, we started to make the enrichment for the animals. The table was laid out with left-overs from breakfast including boiled eggs, peanut butter and toast (all things which the orangutans love). We were each given a piece of material, needle and thread and given the task of wrapping up food for the orangutans and sun bears whilst making it as hard as possible for them to get into.

Making enrichment for the animals

I started by spreading some peanut butter on a leaf, adding seeds to it and wrapping it up like a parcel. I then continued adding food inside leaves before wrapping them up, sometimes tying them with string. Once I had lots of little parcels, I sewed my material to make a bag. I put inside all the filled leaves and sewed it up before folding it and sewing it again. I even sewed a smiley face on the bag just for fun.

After this was my favourite part of volunteering with orangutans. We got to go and give our enrichment to the animals. We approached the orangutans first and threw down some of our sacks. I was excited that mine was taken by my favourite orangutan at the centre, Bunyal. He got into it fairly quickly using his teeth and went straight for the leaf filled with a boiled egg. It was amusing watching him use his lips to separate the egg from the shell.

Bunyal enjoying his enrichment

Once finished, being the youngest orangutan, Bunyal put the sack over his head and rolled around and around. It was so fun and adorable to watch. It’s important to stimulate the animals where possible and giving them food which they have to work to get into does this.

An orangutan playing with enrichment

Next, we wandered to the sun bears where we threw down more sacks for their enrichment. The sun bears were so strong and able to get into the enrichments fairly quickly.

Sun bear with enrichment

Other Activities

As well as volunteering with the orangutans and sun bears, we also got a chance to complete different activities around the centre. In the late afternoon, we’d usually go for a walk in the surrounding jungle. One day we walked to a waterfall which was so serene and peaceful. It was only our group there so it felt very remote. The walk took four hours overall and included walking over bridges and through the jungle.

Waterfall in the Bornean jungle

One night we were taken on a night walk which was an experience like no other. With our head torches, we made our way through the vast jungle with no idea what might be hiding in the trees beside us. We saw many little frogs, spiders and someone even spotted a tarsier. At one point, our guide asked us to all turn off our torches and to stand very still. Once our eyes began to adjust the forest floor began to glow. It was one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen in my life.

The Accommodation

Understandably, you should not expect luxury when volunteering with orangutans in the middle of the jungle. If our accommodation was more luxurious, I might have wondered why the money was spent on that rather than bigger areas for the animals so I’m pleased their priorities were in the right place. I shared a room with three lovely people in my group with a fan to cool us down. There was no air conditioning which is perfect for me as it effects my asthma. We had a simple shower and toilet which was again, no less than we needed.

My Overall Experience

I was impressed with the commitment to conservation. Leo, the man in charge, was hugely passionate and informative about the work that the centre do with the little resources and money that they have. All of the staff had great knowledge and were very passionate about saving animals. I have huge admiration for someone who dedicates their life to saving animals for no wage, just food and accommodation and a flight home each year.

I liked the facts that the centre was very eco conscious in general. Most of the staff were vegan and no food seemed to be wasted. It was used for animal enrichment. Also, rather than providing us with plastic bottles, we were able to fill our reusable bottles with water tanks there.

Overall, I loved my experience volunteering with orangutans and sun bears and am so grateful for what I learnt and being part of the programme. The food was incredible, the location was unbelievable and the rescue stories were heart-warming. I just wish I had more time to spend volunteering before the rest of the tour commenced. Although I love seeing more of a country, learning about wildlife is also so important to me. Because of this, I’ve booked a two week volunteering trip to Namibia next year (again with The Great Projects) and am then traveling around the country for two weeks with my boyfriend, Mike. Best of both worlds!

Aman, one of the larger orangutans

Tell me: Have you ever volunteered with wildlife or would you like to? Let me know in the comments below.

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Bunyal the orangutan with text
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2 Comments

  1. January 12, 2019 / 3:14 pm

    I’ve visited this sanctuary a looong time ago, I don’t think it had a volunteer program back then – it sure has bloomed!

  2. January 12, 2019 / 6:44 pm

    I’m definitely looking up The Great Projects as seeing Orangutans in Borneo (or Sumatra; I’m not fussy!) has always been my dream too! It sounds great that you can combine volunteering with exploring the country in more depth. And Namibia is top of my travel hit list right now, so envious! 😊

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