Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island Foundation Project
Location: Semanggol, Perak, Malaysia
Project: Orangutan Education and Conservation Assistant
Duration: 1 week (min)
Cost: $550 US
What's included: One way transfer to the project. Room and board -2 meals a day for 5 days.
Project details: Food preparation, feeding, enrichment and enclosure cleaning for the orangutans.
I never thought I could have a favorite animal, but after managing the sanctuary in Ecuador and volunteering in Costa Rica, my love and fascination was for the primates. And with the admiration of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, working with a great ape is an absolute dream.
I set my sights on Borneo and Sumatra – home of the Orangutans. I researched numerous projects and realised the cost at the time was a bit out of my budget. I was still determined and eventually found a small budget friendly orangutan sanctuary near Penang, Malaysia.
My first thought was a zoo rather than a sanctuary. There were limited reviews other than tourists and only the foundations website to go on. I imagined the worst. And this is why I felt I had to go. For a better understanding of why that is please read my blog LINK
My initial understanding was that the orangutan facility was created as more of a tourist attraction for the lakeside resort in the early 2000’s. It wasn’t until 2008 they became an ex-situ facility.
It is now a behavior research centre that hosts students, veterinarians, primatologists and others while taking in and caring for orangutans that need rehabilitation before they can go back in the wild.
True or not, this is something that is said about every sanctuary.
My TRUTHFUL OPINION:
Facility: Both good and bad. The daytime area was located in the jungle- spacious, natural and a great place for an orangutan to live. Unfortunately, the night time enclosures left something to be desired. It was in a tiny and dark cage with no enrichment or comfort. As with most sanctuaries they are housed this way to avoid any poaching, injuries or other dangers when there is no staff to observe them. To make night enclosures bigger and better can be costly and considering they are diurnal, the focus is on the daytime behaviour. The other areas of the facility are quite good for research, vet and average food prep areas.
Tourist Trap: No. The lack of promotion and the few tours that went through during my time, showed the limited resources and the belief it was more of a research centre.
Hands on: Here the orangutans are very adapted to human contact which always makes it difficult to be re-released, but possible. When feeding the orangutans there is a lot of close contact and touching through the cage which is discouraged but it does happen, and dangerous incidents where the orangutans will grab you and not let go. They may provide a very brief photo opportunity with one of them on your last day, but no touching.
Volunteer duties: Very easy and short days. Not much involved in physical labour and a great starting point for someone new to volunteering or the more chilled type. Just make sure you get all the tasks done before having your orangutan time. Remember they rely on you to feed them and clean their night home properly.
Enrichment: Very limited as they have plenty of enrichment outdoors, but they still love it - so get creative. There are a few orangutans that are permanently in cages unfortunately due to lack of funding and space, that desperately needed enrichment, which I made my top priority.
Overall: I think this is a great project that has a lot of potential. If you go in with an open mind and don’t question a lot of the practices or reasoning, you will enjoy this beyond memorable, laid back and inexpensive volunteer project that really needs your funding.
Daily Duties: You start at 8:30am and prepare the juice and feed the orangutans while in the night cages. They are then released and you begin the cleaning. It can get a bit hot and mosquitos are an issue for some. Until 11 you can do enrichment. Just after 11 you prepare another juice and rice on M/W/F. Lunch is then served, then you feed the second juice. Orangutan time until around 2, then chop up vegetables, prepare rice balls on M/W/F, tidy up and head down to the dock – You are done! For a detailed list click here LINK
Accommodation: Shared 3 bdrm/2bath apartment with the host and other volunteers. Wifi can be dodgy at times – it is highly recommended you pick up a sim card. The host will take you into town on your first night to get supplies.
Transportation: You will be picked up from the airport or your hotel in Georgetown. After the project you will have to plan your transportation back. There are limited taxis but you may ask the host to find a ride to a bus or train station.
Each work day you will be picked up and dropped off to the boat that takes you to the sanctuary. On your days off you will need to rent a bike or walk. There is very little around the accommodation.
Food: Breakfast consists of granola bars, fruit, cereal coffee and bread. Lunch is usually a homemade curry with rice or spaghetti. For dinner you’ll be driven into town and taken to a restaurant. This you will have to pay for yourself, but the food in Malaysia is fairly cheap. I spent usually less than $5.00 and was content. If you’re a big eater and want a few drinks, budget for $10/night
Days off: You will have the weekend off, but it’s quite difficult to go anywhere and there is not much nearby. If you’re an animal lover like me – I just asked if I could work instead. There is a swimming pool that may be open and waterslides a short walk away. For food a bike is recommended or the walk to the resort, unless you’ve stocked up and just want to chill.
What to pack: Shirts and shorts that cover your knees and shoulders. Flip flops are ok…if you don’t mind the bugs. Mosquito spray. And whatever else you would pack for a trip.
For more information on the project click here