My experience working with orangutans

The Great Project - Orangutan
Organutans at Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary. Credit: @julesduncphotos

Ever since I was a child I have loved orangutans so when my friend booked for the orangutan volunteer project in Indonesian Borneo, I jumped at the chance to join her. Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary is situated in the midst of Borneo’s tropical rainforest and houses the largest number of captive orang-utans in the world. This wonderful organisation was founded in 1999 by BOSF (Borneo Orangutan Sanctuary Foundation) and is home to around 400 orangutans, each with their own backstory. The aim of BOSF is to fully rehabilitate rescued orangutans and safely return them to their natural habitat but sadly, not all will be returned to the wild. Why? Some are too old to learn the skills necessary to fend for themselves and others have been injured or are suffering from trauma. For these ‘special boys and girls’ BOSF are trying to raise enough money to buy land so they may eventually have controlled freedom.

The volunteer project is organised by ‘The Great Projects’ who began their work in Malaysian Borneo setting up ‘The Great Orangutan Project.’ The organisation has now expanded across Asia and into Africa, Central America and Europe and offers a range of volunteer projects working with endangered animals and local communities across these continents.

The main tasks for the volunteers in Nyaru Menteng Sanctuary are to assist the incredible people who work tirelessly in rehabilitating the orphan orangutans. My friend and I went for two weeks during July/August and each day, with six other volunteers and two leaders, we worked to enrich the lives of the animals. For example, to help the orangutans with their nest building skills, we used machetes to cut down various bushes and trees so they could make a fresh bed every night.

Other enrichment included filling sacks with leaves, fruit and nuts and preparing lunch buckets with an array of potato, turnip and other fruits. On a personal note, I learned new skills including sawing bamboo into pipes that were used for porridge and mashed bananas and I even sawed planks of wood which contributed to a jungle gym we made from scratch. I have to say my highlight was seeing the orphaned youngsters returning from forest school and playing on the gym we had created.

I chose Borneo for my volunteering experience mostly because of Channel 4’s ‘Jungle School’ programme. The stories of individual orangutans were told with pride and love by the staff who look after them and it was clear to me that this was more than a job. The star of the show was Big Boy Beni, who is famous for his love of bananas and even has his own fan page! At times the narration was sad, especially when babies were found without their mother, but because of BOSF and their work, every rescued orangutan is taken care of and taught the necessary skills for eventual release.

If you are interested in conservation and having fun at the same time, this life-changing opportunity is for you. Volunteers work in a small team and quickly develop a strong bond and a sense of teamwork. The first five days are spent in quarantine, which means volunteers do not have access to the orangutan enclosures, so the time is spent preparing enrichment, planting trees and lots of other interesting challenges. The work is hard and humidity is high and the sweat rolled off us constantly, but the feeling of achievement and the freezing cold shower at the end of the day was worth it. Both BOSF and The Great Projects discourage physical interaction with the orangutans, which is understandable considering the aim is to teach them to become wild again.


After the quarantine period was over, we put on our face masks and wellington boots, and from a safe distance we were allowed to give enrichment to the outstretched hands. Watching these majestic proud animals use the enrichment we had made was incredibly humbling.

Problems that face orangutans in the wild are deforestation due to the ever-increasing palm oil plantations creating the loss of natural habitat. Another problem facing the wildlife of Borneo is the forest fires that rage through the jungle particularly in the long, dry season. Scarily during my stay, the fires encroached onto the sanctuary but were extinguished before any harm was done. Fortunately, BOSF has many contingency plans for such events but there is always more we can do to help.

Most recent estimations indicate that around 57,000 Borneon orangutans survive in the wild today and debates suggest that due to fires, poaching, illegal pet trade and deforestation there is a loss of between 3,000 and 5,000 orangutans every year. Some experts predict extinction in the wild is likely to be within 10-20 years. So how can we help? We can make a donation, we can adopt our very own orangutan or like I did, we can sign up through The Great Projects to be a volunteer. BOSF relies on our help to assist the care of displaced animals and help with the reintroduction to areas of safe and natural habitat.

During my stay at Nyaru Menteng, an experience that will stay with me for life, was witnessing four orangutans leave the sanctuary to be returned to the wild. As the staff and volunteers gathered together to wish safety and freedom to these magnificent animals, we met the CEO of BOSF, Mr Jamartin Sihite. It was an honour to be part of such an intimate ceremony and a rare privilege to witness the love and care that goes into rehabilitation and ultimately the return of these beautiful primates to the wild.

All students at LJMU are encouraged to take up opportunities to study, work or volunteer abroad. Find out more about our go abroad programmes.


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