Volunteer with Orangutans

Orangutans are the only great ape living in Asia. There are 2 true species and potentially a third sub species. Volunteer with Orangutans in Malaysia or Indonesia.

Volunteer with orangutans

Orangutan projects are very popular due to the fact that there are only two places in the world where they can be located, Malaysia or Indonesia. They are yet another species whose wild population is in decline and at risk from human activity such as deforestation due to logging and unsustainable agriculture destroying their habitat.

It is important to understand that whilst the rehabilitation of the animals are important it is not where the conservation efforts should stop. The preservation and restoration of their habitat parallelled with community education and involvement is just as important, if not more so. Without restoring their natural environment there is no longer a place for these animals in the wild which is why responsible volunteering is so vital in improving conservation efforts.

What will you gain when volunteering with orangutans

Many tourists begin their search for volunteering with orangutans with the idea of being able to spend a week cuddling cute animals. Whilst this is a problem in itself as many of the animals in sanctuaries are there for the purpose of rehabilitation, volunteering is so much more than that. When done right volunteering can provide you with a unique insight into the environmental issues that human activity causes subsequently prompting the demand for rescue centres and conservation projects. In addition, learning about being an educated consumer in order to contribute to the conservation efforts even after you return home from your trip is an invaluable resource to gain from any volunteering experience. Seeing first hand where products like palm oil originate and the effect it can have on the communities and the environment is the best way to pertinently involve yourself in the environmental issues we face as a generation.  And of course, you will get to see the cute animals at the sanctuaries which you can’t see in person at home.

Rescue Centres, Rehabilitation centres and projects, what is the difference?

Rescue Centres

Rescue Centres are where animals which have been confiscated are taken for initial treatment and evaluation. These centres often have many types of animals.  The purpose of these centres is to first help care for the animals incase they have any issues.  They are then assessed to see if they are suitable for rehabilitation or if they need to be cared by humans for the rest of their lives.

Some animals may then move to the next stage or to a facility that can care for the animals long term.

Rescue Centres often have limited cage and enclosure sizes.

Rehabilitation Centres

Rehabilitation Centres are often facilities that specialise in one and sometimes two specific species.  

They would have specific training skills for the orangutans to learn and improve which will help them in wild. These maybe nest building, snake identifications or methods to dig out food.

You should not be able to touch any of the any animals going through rehabiliation as the main rule is that they should be weened off humans so when they are released they can live by themselves.

Conservation projects

The last step are projects looking after wild orangutans by looking after their natural environment.  This could involve habitat improvements like tree planting with fruit species esp figs and durians or counting nests to estimate their population.  

At these projects you may or may not see wild orangutans and the activities change depending on the needs of the project. 


You can expect lots of walking and searching for long periods in tropical rainforests, often in less than hospitable environments. Think sweety, humid, mosquitoes, and leeches and that is the reality of the tropical rainforest where Orangutans live.

The importance of Community Involvement

Change can’t happen without people. People like yourself wanting to volunteer, the people who organise the projects and the local people who live there. Volunteer programmes are implemented to create change for the community and their environment and for tourists to be a part of this. It is imperative to have the local community on board with plans for change in order to avoid conflict and promote positive developments both in the present and the future. Everyone cares about the area they live in and what happens to it and so it is essential to make sure the people are educated on how to contribute to positive change for their environment and the species that inhabit it. Orangutan conservation organisations can begin the conversation surrounding actions for development but at the end of the day it is up to the locals to continue this work in future generations to come and education and community involvement are essential tools in support of this. Although, this is not to say that the local people are the only ones who benefit from the community projects. Having volunteers and people from the community working together enables everyone to learn from each other in one form or another and allows people from overseas to experience a new culture broadening their understanding of the world and gaining a better sense of connectivity with nature. Only those who truly immerse themselves in the experience will reap the benefits of their experience by continuing their efforts after their trip.

Top tips for Volunteering with Orangutans

  1. Be prepared for getting involved. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, don’t just sit back and let it pass you by, get involved in everything. Whether that be the fun stuff like feeding the orangutans or the more nitty-gritty things like cleaning and getting dirty.
  2. Remember that they are wild animals even if they are in captivity. Don’t expect to be cuddling the orangutans for a week, there’s more to volunteering with orangutans than their cuteness.
  3. Volunteering with orangutans means you’re more than likely going to be in Indonesia or Malaysia which are both situated on the equator, meaning they have a tropical climate. Expect a mix of wet and dry climate depending on the time of year you are visiting.
  4. Remember you’ll be working as part of a team, whether it be with the staff of the organisation or other volunteers most projects are a collective effort so come prepared to share knowledge and be open to the same from others.
  5. Do your research on the project and know what to expect and have a can-do attitude in case the situation changes on a particular day, flexibility is key in projects with animals.
  6. Don’t be expecting the Ritz. You might have to rough it a little bit because a lot of the money organisations make goes into the project, not the facilities, so in some cases get comfortable with the idea of a sleeping bag and the floor, especially if you’re camping.
  7. Take a camera. As a once in a lifetime experience you will want to capture your memories to share with you friends and family back home.
  8. Look into things like a sim card if you’re wanting to contact home and don’t rely on the WIFI. The best option for this could be getting a sim card at the airport for the local network on arrival.
  9. Bring energy snacks or home comforts but not chocolate because warm temperatures and chocolate don’t mix well. Go for things like granola bars and biscuits
  10. Bring suitable travel toiletries such as soap bars which are not damaging to the water systems. Other options include biodegradable and natural shampoo and conditioner bars.
  11. Come prepared for a little down time. This may only be one day a week but bring something like a book to keep you entertained as you may not have WIFI. This is dependent on how long you will be at the project for.
  12. Check with your doctor before you go with things like vaccinations and medication such as malaria tablets. You don’t want to get out there and then realise you can’t do certain activities because you haven’t had a vaccine.
  13. Invest in a water bottle that filters water. This isn’t an essential as they are quite pricey but if you can afford to they are amazing. You don’t always know if you’ll have access to drinking water and saves you buying lots of plastic bottled water.
  14. Take your own first aid kit with basics such as plasters, anti bac wipes, paracetamol and savlon even if you just end up using it for a blister it is good to have.
  15. Do your research on orangutans as this shows you have a basic understanding before joining the project and then you’re on a level playing field with other volunteers. Showing eagerness is not a bad thing.

Dan's Top Volunteer with Orangutan Projects

Wildlife conservation school trip care for orangutans

Functional Rescue Centre On the island of Java, Indonesia

This project is one of the most effective Rescue Centres I know of. They work with the Princess of Yogyakarta and the local government. Any animal confiscations that happen in central Java will be taken to this centre. This centre acts as the first place the rescued animals go to. They are cared for and then if possible they go to rehab centres or island santuaries for orangutans which are not suitable for release back to the wild. They have so far rescued 9 orangutans with 4 going to rehab centres and 3 going to island sanctuaries, there are currently two at the centre and maybe more in the future after confiscations by the Indonesian government. This is a great project to join if you love not just orangutans but also other animals. They rehabilitate alot of raptors.
volunteer with orangutans in Sabah Borneo

Rainforest Restoration for Orangutans

Habitat restoration at the Kinabatangan River, a key refuge for wild Bornean Orangutans, is vital due to the detrimental impacts of logging from the 70s until late 80s which caused fragmentation in the rainforest alongside unsustainable palm oil plantations. APE’s tree planting initiative’s aim is to repopulate these fragmented areas alongside the new RSPO guideline to promote sustainable palm oil farming. The area is now recognised by the government as a protected nature reserve which means any form of plantation on the boarders of the reserve need to provide a buffer space for animals to pass through safely such as the endangered pigmy elephants and Bornean Orangitans who need to be able to migrate safely. It is important to educate the younger generation on the gravity of conservation projects and their impact because they will dictate the future of the species. APE also Involves the locals in the volunteering programmes as many will provide accommodation and meals for the volunteers giving them an immersive experience with the culture. Moreover, the locals are a focal point in the tree planting initiative as the coronavirus pandemic has meant that this is their main form of income and the locals aid the organisation in the logistics of planting all the trees and repopulating the fragmented areas with new growth.
volunteer with orangutans matang

Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

If you want to focus just on the rehabilitation of Orangutans then the best place to go by far is the Great Orangutan Project in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. The centre has strict ethical volunteering practices and has helped care for, rehabilitate and released over 20 individual orangutans in to the protected forest reserves of Sarawak. They are supported by subsidery companies like Monkee Bar which is a normal bar but all of its profits go back to helping the orangutans, a very unique business model.
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