Peering into the deep, dark eyes of a Bornean orangutan, you’re likely to see a bit of yourself. It’s not your imagination playing tricks on you; this remarkable primate shares 97% of its DNA with humans. And though it’s unlikely that you’ll spot them in the wilds of Borneo (it is, sadly, on the critically endangered list), you will encounter them at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

The “old man of the forest,” as the orangutan is called for its sage-like countenance, is the largest tree-dwelling animal on earth. Its rust-red coat is often shaggy, with hair that drapes long to the ground. Its arms can be as long as five feet and its facial expressions and body movements are famously human-like. And there’s another quality they share with us: intelligence. They might use spears to try to catch fish, leafy branches to swat away bees or to protect themselves from the rain, or a stick to scratch their backs.

Centers like Sepilok exist largely as a response to the deforestation of Borneo. Since the 1960s, forests have been stripped for timber and for palm oil, leaving the orangutan population decimated. Palm oil (used as a biofuel and in cooking oils and food and personal care products) is one of the most contentious issues on Borneo: Though its impact on the environment and on local species is clearly destructive, farmers rely on it as a basic source of income, providing employment to a large sector of Malaysians on the island. There are no easy answers to the issue that will satisfy both farmers and environmentalists, and governments have been slow to offer solutions. Some anthropologists believe that, if this trend continues, it is just a matter of a couple of decades before the Bornean orangutan is extinct.

Of course, Sepilok wants to prevent that. It opened its doors more than 50 years ago, in 1964, as the first rehabilitation center of its kind. Its naturalists rescue orphaned infants from logging sites and palm oil plantations, or they are taken in after they’ve been discovered to have been kept illegally as pets. After much day to day survival training in the reserve, they are released into the wild.

As awareness of this urgent issue increases, it is Sepilok’s hope that the Bornean orangutan population rebounds. Until then, its dedicated team does all it can to sustain this magnificent primate.

Visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center during Discovery Tours’ new Borneo, Nature, Diversity & Grace tour.

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