Most people who travel to Sumatra come in search of the elusive and famous Sumatran orangutan. These impressive red apes inhabit the rainforests of Sumatra. They are truly some of the most amazing animals on the planet.
Bukit Lawang is the most well-known place to see Sumatran orangutans. But it’s by no means the only spot to head in search of the red ape. The Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra/Aceh is prime Sumatran orangutan habitat,
From remote villages to bustling tourist centres, there are a variety of options to choose from as you head out on a Sumatran orangutan trek.
Let’s take a look at some of the best places to see orangutans in Sumatra, learn a bit about our second-closest cousins, and find out how to be a responsible tourist when in search of them.
1. Bukit Lawang
Bukit Lawang is quite possibly the most famous tourist spot in Sumatra. It is the only place in the jungle where you are guaranteed to see an orangutan.
Around a three-hour drive from Medan, it’s an easy journey to make.
Up until 2005, Bukit Lawang served as a “soft release” site for rescued orangutans. Those that had been rescued and rehabilitated were set free into the Gunung Leuser National Park and cared for by staff.
They were fed daily on feeding platforms, which tourists could visit to see the animals up close.
Many of these orangutans eventually dispersed, but there are a small number that stayed close to humans and are semi-wild. It is these individuals that you will probably see when you head out trekking from Bukit Lawang.
Although it’s fantastic for tourists to be able to meet these incredible apes in their natural habitat, their behaviour is not so natural and there are a ton of associated problems.
Technically, guides are not allowed to feed or interact with the animals; the good guides don’t, but there are many who do.
Why is this a problem? Because we are so closely related to orangutans, we can pass on a cold, a virus, or more serious health issues. In July 2018, a baby orangutan died; the death was blamed on the close interaction with tourists.
One of Bukit Lawang’s semi-wild orangutans is infamous; Mina, one of the original released animals is a feisty girl with a long history of aggression towards humans.
Many of the guides are scared of her and for good reason; she sends both locals and tourists to the hospital with a bite at least once or twice a year!
Some guides use her aggressive behaviour as an excuse to feed her, saying that if they don’t, she will attack them. But our experience from trekking with truly knowledgable guides is that she learns which ones will give her nothing and leaves them alone, targeting the ones that do her bidding!
If you’re desperate to see an orangutan outside of a zoo and are short on time, a day or two in Bukit Lawang will have you sorted. However, there’s nothing quite like seeing a truly wild orangutan in the middle of the jungle.
Read on to learn about some other amazing places to see orangutans in Sumatra.
If you’re heading to Bukit Lawang and are looking for a responsible guide, shoot us a message and we can recommend several guesthouses and trekking companies to get you started.
2. Batu Katak
We have the inside scoop on a great little village on the edge of the Gunung Leuser, only around 30 minutes by car or motorbike from Bukit Lawang.
Batu Katak has none of Bukit Lawang’s hustle and bustle, restaurants, night life or development. What it does have is a charming, authentic village with a smattering of great guesthouses and an abundance of wildlife.
Spend a night or two here and go trekking, either into the karst forest – which is chock full of wildlife – or the national park.
Although orangutans are not guaranteed, you have a pretty good chance of seeing them. In fact, we’ve been to Batu Katak a number of times and seen wild orangutans every single time. It’s also prime habitat for the gorgeous Siamang gibbon and Sumatran tiger.
If you come at the right time, you can also see the world’s largest bloom – the Rafflesia – an amazing plant that is difficult to find anywhere else.
If you’re interested in spending time here away from the craziness of Bukit Lawang (but not so far you have to travel for hours), contact us, we can recommend accommodation and awesome local guides.
3. Batu Rong Ring
The virtually undiscovered village of Batu Rong Ring is another gem in North Sumatra. This is a very new tourist destination which is still growing, so it’s pristine and ripe for exploring.
Halfway between Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan in North Sumatra, there is very little tourist infrastructure. This is a true, authentic village and jungle. The local guides are dedicated to sustainably growing, protecting and promoting their slice of paradise.
You have a pretty good chance of seeing orangutans here, depending on your luck, as well as gibbons, leaf monkeys and a range of other native wildlife.
There’s some great caves to explore, along with waterfalls and untouched jungle.
Keen to visit Batu Rong Ring? Contact us for a hook up!
Although not as famous as Bukit Lawang, Tangkahan has been a growing ecotourism destination in North Sumatra for the last 15 years. The big draw there are the elephants at the rescue center; however, there’s a lot more to Tangkahan than just elephants.
Trekking here is a joy. Again, wild animals are unpredictable and we can’t guarantee that you’ll see anything at all! But if you’re lucky, you’ll see orangutans.
Your chances will increase if you visit during fruit season, which is around August-September.
For more information on Tangkahan, read our Epic, Ultimate Guide to Tangkahan.
Need a local guide to help you spot wild Sumatran orangutans? Contact us for info and recommendations.
Ketambe also lies on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, but is found further north than our other locations, in the southern region of the Aceh province.
It’s a bit of a hike from Medan; expect a good eight hour journey by car or minibus. Unless you take a private car and driver, will have to split your journey up into sections.
Because it’s so far from Medan, it might pay to include your trip to Ketambe with further exploration of Aceh.
Ketambe is a small, remote village with basic facilities. There are a handful of guesthouses to choose from. Most rooms will have a western toilet, but don’t expect air conditioning or hot showers.
While we have yet to visit this pristine jungle village, we have heard nothing but great things about it and have some good friends working here as guides.
Some guides will tell you the chance of seeing a wild orangutan sits at around 90%. However, this is a rather bold claim and we’d hate to disappoint, so take your expectations down a notch and let’s say there’s a 50-60 % chance of bumping into a red ape if you are doing a single day trek.
Like all the orangutan trekking spots — barring Bukit Lawang — the orangutans are never fed and will not approach humans. However, they are quite used to seeing people so won’t hide in the tree tops, giving you a good chance to observe them in their exquisite natural habitat.
Remember, the longer your trek, the higher the chances get. My friend who is based in Ketambe estimates around an 80% chance if you are on a two day or longer trek.
For more information on how to get to Ketambe from either Medan or Banda Aceh, pop across and visit our friends at Sumatra Jungle. You can also find info on where to stay and book a trek with jungle guide Safar.
Kedah is situated in the Aceh province, not so far from Ketambe. Lying at the northern border of the GLNP, this a remote, area and a great place to go in search of the red ape. You may also see gibbons, hornbills and a host of other amazing flora and fauna.
Kedah is around three hours north of Ketambe.
This is another place we have yet to head to, so can’t give personal recommendations as yet. Latest intel suggests that there is still only one guesthouse in Kedah, Rainforest Lodge, run by a lovely local fellow named Mr. Jali.
About one hour’s hike from the village, the lodge provides basic rooms, food, and will hook you up with a trek to suit you.
Reviewers rave about the lack of tourists, the abundance of wildlife, and the authentic kindness and experience shown by Mr Jali and his team.
From the sounds of it, there is a regular population of orangutans living only a short distance from the guesthouse and chances of running into one are high.
Sumatran Orangutan Facts
- Orangutans share 97 percent of the same DNA as humans and are our second closest relatives after chimpanzees.
- Mostly solitary, males and females come together to mate and hang out, then go their separate ways. Mums raise the babies on their own.
- Orangutans are exceptionally strong — about seven times as strong as humans.
- They live entirely in the trees and it is unnatural for them to come to the ground.
- While Sumatran orangutans eat only leaves, vines, bark, flowers, fruit and insects, Bornean orangutans have been known to chow down on other primates: namely, the Slow Loris.
- When it’s time to sleep, orangutans build giant, comfy nests high up in the trees. They often have separate nests for day and night time. Some even get fancy and add roofs and umbrellas.
- Male orangutans can weight up to 120 kilograms, while females are about half the size at 45kgs.
- Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are different species with different characteristics. Sumatran orangutans are brighter orange with a narrower face. The boys have longer goatees and often slightly smaller cheekpads.
Sumatran Orangutan Sanctuaries
Currently there are no places in Sumatra where you can get up and close with the animals in a “sanctuary” setting – thankfully.
Any place that allows the public to get close enough to a wild animal to handle it is not a true sanctuary.
The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme is a fantastic organisation that operates a rescue and rehabilitation quarantine centre just out of Medan. Here, they have dozens of orphaned baby orangutans.
They also have a number of adult orangutans who can’t be released into the wild for a variety of reasons.
Although it is not open to the public, I’ve had the privilege of visiting and working at this centre several times in my capacity as a great ape keeper.
They do an amazing job and are constantly overloaded by orphans coming in. These infants are taught how to survive in the jungle and will eventually be released back into protected areas away from villages and tourists.
Because humans can easily pass on illnesses and diseases to these endangered primates, the centre does not permit visitors. They also require minimal human contact to avoid them from becoming overly conditioned to people. Fear of humans is an essential skill to help them survive in the wild.
Sumatran Orangutan Conservation
There are only an estimated 7,500 of this species left, making these gentle and reclusive apes critically endangered.
Sumatran orangutans (and their cousins in Borneo) have been pushed to the brink of extinction by the decimation of their habitat. This is mainly due to the epic scale of palm oil plantations throughout Sumatra, but rubber and other agriculture is also to blame.
The pet trade also plays a role, with baby orangutans sold and traded on the black market.
Orangutans only birth and raise one baby at a time (with the very rare exception). Baby stays with mum for five or more years, so it is difficult for this species to recover from rapid population drops.
There are many organisations working hard to save the orangutan and their habitat, both within Sumatra and from further afield. To follow and support their work, check out some of our friends at these organisations:
A Note on Responsible Ecotourism
You should always choose a a responsible guide when you go in search of orangutans. Never encourage your guide to take you up close to these beautiful animals, as tempting as it may be.
Remember, you are in their home and you must respect them. Humans can pass on a multitude of illnesses to primates, some of which may prove to be fatal.
If you stop for a snack during your trek, take your rubbish with you; even if it’s organic, if you’ve been munching on some fruit and leave the skins or leftovers in the jungle “for the animals,” you may be leaving more than you bargained for in the way of germs and bacteria.
There’s nothing quite as spectacular as watching an orangutan gracefully and silently moving through the rainforest canopy from below. Keep your distance and appreciate the person of the forest as nature intended them to be.