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Volunteering in Borneo

Pygmy elephant Borneo

I’ve wanted to visit Borneo for years to see orang-utans in the wild. Like many people, I’ve felt strongly that we need to do something about the palm oil production and deforestation that is destroying their habitat and leaving many of them injured or orphaned (not to mention all the other species now extinct or endangered).

I searched online for orang-utan volunteering projects and was excited to find one that allows children to participate, since many volunteering opportunities are only open to adults. The social enterprise we volunteered with is APE Malaysia (Animal Projects and Environmental Education), and having just spent the Easter school holidays having an AMAZING time in Borneo, I’m keen to share our experience.

We arrived with a little trepidation having never participated in an organised trip like this before. (Our previous volunteering trip which involved teaching English to children in Cambodia was done on our own schedule and we booked all our own accommodation and meals.) We were advised that we wouldn’t have access to wifi, shops, or hot water and that all meals would be eaten in the villagers’ homes. Annabelle can be a fussy eater so I was imagining her living on boiled rice for the week!

We spent our first project night in a traditional Bornean longhouse, which was a stark contrast to the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu. We shared a dormitory with the English family joining us on this project – a mum, dad and twin boys the same age as Annabelle. The toilets and showers were shared not only with other travellers from all parts of the world, but all the resident bugs and critters of the jungle!

There was a nice community feel at the longhouse though. Really, it was just like camping!  There were several families with young children all passing through on their way to the same destinations we would be heading to (Sepilok where the wildlife sanctuaries are, and Sukau village on the river).  I overhead lots of chatter over breakfast about people’s plans for the day.

We met our project co-ordinators, Mark and Sumira for dinner. Mark has worked with APE for the past nine years and is a passionate and knowledgeable conservationist. Sumira joined APE in 2016, and spends much of her time working in the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC). She loves children and was a fantastic support during our week together.

Adventure Time..

The next morning we were up and away to our jungle destination of Sukau via a supermarket stop for any last minute purchases (snacks for fussy kids and footy socks to deter leeches in the jungle!)

First things first – our B&B on the river had air-conditioned rooms, ceiling fans, hot water showers and wifi in the café. The café also had free flowing coffee and tea all day and a beautiful view of the river. The food was great and included a mix of Malay and western options. So our minds were put at ease about those things immediately. It felt like luxury compared to what we were expecting.

When volunteering groups come through, they rotate through different B&Bs in the area to spread the income around various local businesses. I think we got the best one as it’s been upgraded over the years with more tourists bringing income to the area.

As soon as we arrived, we saw dozens of long-tailed macaques chasing each other through the trees, which made us feel like we’d definitely arrived in the jungle.  Later, we took a boat trip along the river for wildlife spotting. Of course everyone wants to see pygmy elephants or orang-utans but there are never any guarantees, so I tried not to get my hopes up. We couldn’t have been more excited to spot a male orang-utan (very hard to get a good picture) and a whole herd of pygmy elephants who put on a show for us when we were the last boat on the river after all the others had headed back for dinner. It felt like they waited especially for us. (Later in our trip, I overhead other tourists saying they’d been up and down the river four times and not an elephant in sight so we definitely got lucky!)

pygmy elephant borneo
Male pygmy elephant

Jungle Work

Our job was to plant trees in sections of the forest that have previously been cleared by logging. In  2006, the ‘corridor of life‘ was officially gazetted as a conservation area and is now protected from further logging or agriculture. We learned that orang-utans naturally move through the forest canopy, and it’s not natural for them to come to the ground. When sections of forest are cleared there is no longer a continuous canopy for them to move through. By replanting trees in cleared areas, sections of forest will eventually be reconnected, allowing the great apes easy passage through the jungle.

Being a kid-friendly project, we had two quite modest goals: The first was to use machetes to clear away weeds and grasses strangling some 70-80 new saplings planted three months ago. (10yr olds with machetes!! But it was all very safe.) The second was to plant 36 trees in a nearby section of forest.

Our days started with breakfast at 6am so we would get to the project site early enough to beat the heat of the day. It was hot, humid and reasonably strenuous work but the tasks were manageable and the working hours relatively short. As adults we all felt we could have done more, but I think the kids were happy with just the two days required to achieve our goals! When jungle time was over, it was game time on their various ipads and phones.

Our group with Mark and Sumira

Play Time!

In our free time, we were treated to various cultural experiences. We learned about traditional music, dancing and crafts in the home of local villagers. Plenty of neighbours came along to join in the dancing and I think the party continued long after we had left.

We also ate most meals in the home of a local family, and I’m happy to report that even my fussy Annabelle raved about the food. SFC (‘Sukau Fried Chicken’) was  a winner with the kids! All of these activities help to provide some income to the villagers and get them on board with supporting eco-tourism along the river.

We visited Gomantong Cave and learned about the harvesting of swiftlet birds nests for use in Chinese medicine. At dusk, we observed birds of prey swooping for their dinner when thousands of bats exit the caves. It seemed that everywhere we went, an orang-utan was waiting to greet us. There was plenty to keep the bird-watchers entertained too.

Pied Hornbill
Pied Hornbill in the jungle

We trekked in the muddy jungle and took another wildlife spotting boat trip.  Mark was able to answer any question about the jungle and its inhabitants, the palm oil industry, and Sabah’s conservation policy. Both Mark and Sumira constantly astounded us with their ability to spot a well hidden creature in the trees from a distance in a fast-moving boat! All up, we saw six of the ten primates that reside in the area, as well as various snakes, lizards, birds and of course the lovely pygmy elephants.

Kinabatangan River Borneo

Always, the scenery was stunning.

On our last project day we visited Sepilok. This is where you can get up close to the animals at the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre We also took a walk through the  Rainforest Discovery Centre before having a lovely farewell lunch and saying goodbye to our friends.

Annabelle and I chose to stay on in Sepilok for another day so that we could independently visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. It’s actually part of a privately owned palm oil plantation, but the owner discovered a living community of proboscis monkeys in part of the forest. To protect the monkeys, he had the area declared a conservation area. He now charges tourists a fee to view them when they come down to be fed. Proboscis monkeys are unique to Borneo and this is the best place to see them up close.

Proboscis monkey borneo
Mum and baby proboscis monkey

In summary, we had a fantastic experience. The information and safety briefings were thorough and our project coordinators were brilliant. Everything was well-organised and our schedule ran perfectly to time so there was never any stress. Seeing the elephants and orang-utans in their natural habitat was a dream come true for me. Annabelle declared that she loved it too. I think all the kids had a great time together.

How to book

APE Malaysia has several volunteering opportunities which you can see on their website. (I don’t get anything for recommending them.)

If you’re in Australia, Mark suggests booking through Barbara Katsifolis, a Melbourne based travel agent specialising in responsible tourism and herself a frequent visitor to Borneo. Barbara recently participated in a 2-week volunteering trip to the Sun Bear Centre so she’s familiar with APE and their work. She wrote a blog about her experience which you can read here.
(Sun Bears are on my list now!!) You can find her on Facebook HERE or her contact details are: or phone 0408 360 890

Happy travels!

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
Hi, I’m Cass.

I'm here to help you find freedom from psychological struggles so that you can live your happiest, most meaningful and fulfilling life.

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