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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - It’s a jungle in there

It’s a jungle in there


If you’re tempted to get out of the Penh and into a pen over the Christmas break, the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary makes a good day trip.

Reporters Roth Meas and Lionel Mok scoped out the menagerie. Pictures by Nina Loacker.

FROM the outset, it’s clear that the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary is not your typical zoo – with the people separated from the animals only by the smallest of fences, the experience is more like a safari.

Spanning 1,200 hectares, the sanctuary rarely stays out of the news for long. It’s home to leopard cubs saved from the floods; a peglegged elephant with a prosthetic foot; and numerous endangered species confiscated in animal trafficking raids.

And there is enough space between the habitats to either drive between them or take a casual stroll and enjoy the sun. Walkers beware though, as monkeys tend to roam the roads between the various exhibits, and some of them were brought in from the hardened simian gangs that lurk round Wat Phnom, so guard food and belongings carefully.

The zoo is roughly a 45 minute trip from the capital, off National Highway 2 to Takeo. On the way, you will be assailed by beggars and monks, who throw water on the road in front of you hoping for a donation as you drive past.  

The entrance fee is $5 for tourists, which goes towards the upkeep. The place is rarely visited by foreigners, but after the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh, a trip to the zoo could be the key to a relaxed holiday break.

The zoo is rather lacking in signs, and you could easily get lost searching for the different animals. But there are many friendly locals working inside who will be happy to help – though they’ll try to sell something to you first.


The Purloined Pythons

Cambodians seem to have a special relationship with serpents – in 2008, a 7-year-old Khmer kid made international headlines with his 16-foot-long, 220-pound snake, which the owners believed was possessed by a benevolent spirit. That snake now resides at Phnom Tamao, after it grew too big for the family to handle. But it’s not alone.

Last month, police confiscated 10 snakes from the black market in various provinces, and they’re now being held in Phnom Tamao. The snakes were brought in on November 26, and are being tested until the zoo can confirm they are healthy enough to be released back into the wild. Then, the pythons will be let free in the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province – at a safe distance from locals.

In addition to the 10 snakes under observation, the Phnom Tamao Zoo is home to six pythons which live there permanently. Only two of these pythons are on display, with the others kept out of view. Each python consumes between three to six chickens a week, meaning that the zoo goes through about 50 chickens a week.

The pythons are the only snakes found in Cambodia which the zoo is equipped to house. The zoo’s manager said that King Cobras are too dangerous to house at the moment, and the zoo is not willing to take the risk. There are two main python subspecies found in Cambodia, the Burmese Python and the Reticulated Python. Wild Burmese Pythons can grow from between 3.7 to 5.8 metres long. The largest python in Phnom Tamao weighs over 70 kilos.


The Jealous Gibbon

Female visitors should be on guard at Phnom Tamao for some intense competition. A gibbon was brought into the zoo to treat a sore spot on her head, but despite being a newcomer she has laid a fierce claim to her territory and all the men in it, ape or otherwise.

Tork Samnang, a caretaker at the zoo, said that the gibbon gets extremely jealous of other females, and will subject them to sustained bouts of aggression.

“She doesn’t like girls and doesn’t want to see any girls walking around here, or she will go crazy,” said Tork Samnang.

“If a girl stands too close to the cage, the gibbon always stretches her hand outside the cage to drag the girl’s hair, clothes or other belongings. If they stand too far away, she can only jump around or shake the cage.”

And despite posing gracefully for male tourists, the gibbon will just show its behind to any girls who try and take its picture.

Tork Samnang said that while some gibbons at Phnom Tamao have their own names, this one doesn’t. And she doesn’t know where it came from. But he suspects that at some point in time, the gibbon was captured by traffickers.

If it’s male attention the gibbon desires, then she’s lucky to have her scalp problem. That requires Tork Samnang to personally care for her every day.


The Educated Elephant

Try Sitheng has taught Lucky the elephant to dance, catch, crawl, kick a footy and paint pictures. But one thing he’s having difficulty with is teaching visitors that he’s not a cruel ringmaster with a barbed whip.

“Most Cambodians who visit our zoo do not just want to see the animals, they want to see the elephant dance. But foreigners do not like the elephant performance because they assume we punish her with our training. But it’s not like that! We use a comforting way to train her.”  

Lucky was brought to the zoo by Koh Kong provincial police after her mother was killed by a hunter in a shelter along the Cardamom mountain range.   

“When Lucky came to the zoo, she was about six to eight months old,” said Try Sitheng. “She could not eat anything. So we had to feed her between 50 to 60 litres of cow milk every day. Lucky was so skinny then, and we took care of her very well.”

After Lucky had her first birthday, Try Sitheng taught her how to dance to Cambodian music, including Ramvong, Kanterem and Madizon.

Rather than relying on negative reinforcement, Try Sitheng used a coin trick to teach Lucky her moves. He placed a coin on her head, and waited for her to shake it off. When she did, he gave her a piece of fruit. In this way, he was able to condition the elephant to dance to music.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not prepared.

When try Sitheng brings Lucky close to an audience, he always keeps a “protecting tool” close at hand.

“Lucky is very gentle at all times. But I have to carry the protecting tool with me. So please don’t feel that I punish her. No way! I like her so much!”

Lucky performs every Sunday from 11am to 12 noon.


The Chatty Bird

Parrots don’t have a monopoly on mocking human speech. The Cambodian Sarika Keo, a type of Myna bird, is often domesticated in rural Khmer households and taught songs or phrases.

“Sarika Keo birds that can speak human language are usually donated by local people, not from NGOs,” said Khatt Khvav, who oversees the birds at Phnom Tamao.

“People teach them to speak, then get tired of raising them, so they give them to us.

There are 32 Sarika Keo birds at Phnom Tamao, in five separate aviaries. Khatt Khvav said that three of the cages have birds who speak some Khmer, including one that sings the folk song Sarika Keo Ery Si Ey Korng Korng.

But the language isn’t really catching on with the other birds, and the zoo has no plans to train them.

“People train their birds to speak by keeping them separated. They block them from communicating with other birds, and every day they feed them fruit while reciting words.”


The Tiger Feeder

There’s no riskier job at Phnom Tamao then feeding the tigers. That duty falls to Noun Piseth, a 25-year-old who has worked there for six years. He feeds the zoo’s eight tigers, cleans their cages, and cares for them when they’re sick. “Our job requires a high degree of caution. Tigers always attack each other to get food. When we feed them, we have to separate each of them into a different cage,” he said.  

Noun Piseth serves up five kilograms of chicken meat and beef to male tigers and three kilograms to females.

When he feeds them at 4pm every day, Noun Piseth takes the opportunity to clean their cage. To accomplish this bout of janitorial peril, he individually locks them in their feeding cages before entering the main arena. “We can not forget one tiger inside the display cage when we go inside, or we will be attacked. We have to pay a high amount of attention to our job,” he said.

Noun Piseth has a particular interest in a male tiger named Areng. While most tigers at the zoo were brought in from elsewhere, Areng was hand-reared by Noun Piseth. “When Areng was born, his mother didn’t breastfeed him. So I fed him with cow milk. I used to take him out of the cage and put him on the runway to play with us. After he turned four years old, he became a bit dangerous, so I didn’t dare to let him out any more.”

Noun Piseth is still close with Areng. He said he feels pity for him, because the tiger has grown up in the zoo and lacks a partner.

“I have worked with these tigers for many years, and I can understand their feelings a little bit. All the tigers here are touchable. But if I want to touch them, I call their name first. If they make a sound in response, that means they have replied to me and they are fine, so I can stretch my hand inside the cage to touch their head. If they keep silent, they have ignored my call. They are probably sick or angry, so I definitely never get he hand near them.”



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