Help to restore Borneo’s rainforest and provide a safe home for wild orangutans and pygmy elephants.
Based in the Lower Kinabatangan Floodplain in Sabah, The Great Orangutan and Pygmy Elephant Project completely encompasses the awe-inspiring diversity of Borneo’s rainforest landscape. The project is situated within the WWF’s protected ‘Corridor of Life’, a region of enormous importance in balancing land-development and the needs of its indigenous communities and wildlife, and as a volunteer, you will become immersed into the natural wonder of this unique habitat as you aid its reforestation.
During your time on the project, you will stay in the small village of Sukau as you live amongst the charming and hospitable ‘Orang Sungai’ (‘People of the River’). A rural, indigenous community of just 1000 or so, the Orang Sungai are always keen to share their way of life with guests, and in return you will help to educate the locals on the importance of conservation, assisting them in implementing more sustainable ways of living which are mutually beneficial to both the people and the animals in the area.
The main focus of the project is to work towards the reforestation of the ‘Corridor of Life’ as, without a safe passage to move through, the survival of species such as orangutans, pygmy elephants, gibbons and proboscis monkeys would be hindered. These reforestation efforts have proven to be successful, with visibility of both orangutans and pygmy elephants improving over time, but more must be done to ensure that Borneo’s wild animals can thrive in their endemic home.
Whilst the main focus of this project is habitat restoration, you will also take part in activities in and around Sukau village and along the Kinabatangan River as you assist with wildlife monitoring during river cruises and a rainforest trek.
Please note, itineraries are subject to change and what follows is simply a rough guideline.
To secure a place on this project, a deposit of $245 is required at the time of booking, with the remaining balance due any time up to 60 days prior to your start date.
Select a duration below to see the available start dates. All dates shown are currently available for you to join this project!
Located in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, this project is situated in an area of rainforest which has unfortunately undergone a great deal of deforestation over the years. Logging activities and the prevalence of palm oil plantations have left countless animals without protection as there are reduced areas of rainforest through which they can safely travel, forcing them to cross into the palm oil plantations where they are increasingly vulnerable.
The project has worked hard not only to reforest the vital ‘Corridor of Life’, but to encourage the local Orang Sungai to live in harmony with their surroundings, speaking with members of the community to educate them on the importance of conservation.
The main goal of this project is to see wildlife species returning to the ‘Corridor of Life’, and so far, the efforts of the project seem to have had some success. With an aim to plant over 2000 new trees annually, the work here is difficult – but the rewards are inspiring. As a result of these efforts, the project has seen impressive numbers of orangutans and pygmy elephants return to the area, and it is hoped that this continued perseverance will result in thriving forests for years to come.
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Most of your time on the project will be spent in Sukau, where you will stay in a small local village B&B situated close to the riverbank, with a common area overlooking the river itself. Rooms here will be on a same-sex, twin-share basis and each room has an en-suite bathroom with warm showers and western toilets. If, however, you are joining as a couple, you will be accommodated together. While the accommodation is basic, it is comfortable, coming complete with bed linen and bath towels. What’s more, you’ll be situated right in the middle of Sukau village, offering you ample opportunity to get to know your hosts and learn all about their way of life!
Your first and final night’s accommodation will be close to Sandakan to make for easy airport transfers. Rooms will be provided on either a twin-share or dormitory-style basis, again with warm showers and western toilets.
It is possible to book a single room for the duration of your time on the project, with the exception of your first night in Sandakan. This can be done for an additional $210, however, this is subject to availability.
All meals are provided and included in the price of the project, except for dinner on your final night in Sandakan.
Whilst in Sukau, breakfast will be served at your accommodation, however, lunch and dinner will be prepared by local villagers in their homes, presenting a great opportunity to hear about their daily lives, chat with the children, and see how the community has been living for centuries.
Most meals will consist of traditional Malaysian food, however, those with dietary requirements can be catered for but we do kindly request that you let us know in advance so that appropriate food items can be purchased.
Tea, coffee and water are provided at the accommodation in Sukau, but all other beverages will need to be purchased and are not included.
This project involves physical work in the way of reforestation activities, often in humid conditions, therefore, a good level of fitness is required. No specific skills are required to join this project: just a love of animals, a strong work ethic, and an ability to work in a team.
There are no specific vaccination or medical requirements needed to join this project and, as such, the vaccinations you require will depend on your medical history. We, therefore, recommend that you consult your GP/doctor regarding your own immunisation needs.
We are often asked whether or not volunteers will have the chance to touch or play with the orangutans whilst on this project. Our answer to this question is, and will always be no, and this is for good reason.
Orangutans are highly susceptible to human diseases and something as minor as the common cold can prove fatal to these great apes. Also, an environment of constant change, with new volunteers going to the project every two or four weeks and being in contact with the orangutans would be very detrimental to their well-being. With no consistency in their lives, behavioural problems arise. They also have a tendency to begin to trust humans which is damaging should they be released back into the wild, as they will become easy targets for poachers. Finally, an orangutan is around 7 times stronger than an adult male human, so a no-contact policy is just as crucial for your well-being as orangutan welfare.
That is not to say that as a volunteer you will have no interaction with orangutans, it simply means that you will have no direct contact with them. You will still observe them when visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and from the boats when on the river if you are lucky enough to see them! For more information please view our article on hands-on contact with orangutans here.
There is no specific 'best' time to join this project, as wildlife is visible all year round. With that in mind, the only differing factor is the weather.
Based on weather, you may prefer to join this project between February and October, as the rainy season hits between November and January. However, over the years, the weather patterns have been changing (both in Malaysia and globally), making this season less clearly defined.
You will need to fly into Sandakan Airport (SDK) on your project start date, arriving between 8am - 4pm. Upon arrival, you will be met by a project representative in the arrivals hall who will transfer you to your first night’s accommodation. This transfer takes approximately 40 minutes.
If you arrive a day early and stay in a hotel close to Sandakan Airport, we may be able to arrange your transfer to your first night’s accommodation from there.
Most nationalities do not need to obtain a visa in advance of travelling to Malaysia, as a 90-day tourist visa is granted on arrival. We do, however, recommend checking with your local embassy regarding visa requirements as visas are the volunteer's own responsibility.
Finding an orangutan nest in a site only planted 18 months ago and watching a young female orangutan cartwheeling through the canopy doing what nature intended - my favourite moment!
Alison Greene , 2020
Planted 500 trees and maintained 2 fields where other volunteers had previously planted trees
Sheryl Alexander, 2019
I will never forget seeing the wildlife and meeting the other volunteers and local people.
Rachel Blackford, 2019
This project was fantastic, to experience local life and integrating with the local villagers was amazing. An amazing team and fantastic rewarding replantation work and then the privilege of seeing Orangutans and Pygmy Elephants in the wild at what can be only said as close as you could possibly ever get without interfering in their life. It was so rewarding and an amazing experience.
Paula Titheradge, 2018
From the moment I arrived in Sakau to the moment I left Malaysia, I was blown away by the wildlife and the people, just the most perfect time of my life, I will be back! I'll never forget seeing a frazzled mother orangutan with a juvenile and a brand new baby. Also, close to the site we’d just planted 100 trees!!
Alison Greene , 2018
I couldn't possibly pick just one favourite moment because there were so many! The people, the food and all of the unique opportunities this project has to offer are the things I will never forget.
Melanie Mullard, 2017
My favourite moment was when we were on a river cruise and then suddenly saw over 40 pygmy elephants crossing the river!
Rebecca Moldovanyi, 2017
I will always remember actually making a difference by planting new saplings in the rainforest. Also the monitoring of wildlife. So many highlights!
Margaret Skelley , 2017
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take part in a project that I've wanted to do since I was a child. It really was a dream come true and certainly the most rewarding thing I have done.
Emma Danielle Foster , 2017
The volunteer work in reforesting the rainforest was very satisfying and the animal encounters and observations were superb as were the opportunities to learn Malaysian culture through home visits with locals in the village. The in-country director and guide was outstanding in his training, directions, teaching, wildlife observations, and general willingness to share all his knowledge of his homeland and the challenges to the wildlife there. He was happy, energetic, dedicated and very capable and organised. Many thanks to Mark for making this a truly great experience.
Kathryn Ely, 2016