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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Controversial elephant swap with Japan called off

Asian elephants Kiri (left) and Seila wander around their enclosure at Teuk Chhou Zoo last year. A controversial deal to trade the elephants with a Japanese zoo has been called off.
Asian elephants Kiri (left) and Seila wander around their enclosure at Teuk Chhou Zoo last year. A controversial deal to trade the elephants with a Japanese zoo has been called off. Vireak Mai

Controversial elephant swap with Japan called off

A controversial proposed animal swap that would have seen elephants Kiri and Seila sent from the notorious Teuk Chhou Zoo in Kampot to a zoo in Japan in exchange for other exotic species has been officially called off, new documents show.

The cancellation was confirmed in a March 23 letter from Kagoshima City Mayor Hiroyuki Mori, who said the deal was abandoned after the government of the southern Japanese city requested the elephants’ birth records and keeping records “in order to abide by international laws”.

“We received a reply from the [Cambodian] government that they could not submit these records. As a result, we stopped the negotiations,” said the letter.

Mori stated that Hirakawa Zoo, which is located around 15 kilometres outside Kagoshima City and was due to receive the pair, will continue to display the two elephants it already houses.

But Teuk Chhou zoo owner Nhim Vanda refused this week to accept that the deal had been called off, instead suggesting it has simply been postponed due to the weather in Japan not being suitable for elephants and the lack of a suitable enclosure for them to live in.

“It’s not the [failure to produce records], it is the issue of climate change over there, meaning they cannot feed the elephants, so they have to delay [the deal] for a while to do more research,” Vanda said. “They need to build a lot of facilities too.”

According to Vanda, a four-star general and elected National Assembly representative who counts Prime Minister Hun Sen as a personal friend, the cancellation of the swap will see the elephants remain at his zoo despite an offer from a sanctuary in Siem Reap province to take them.

Vanda also owns Prey Veng zoo, about 70 kilometres west of Phnom Penh, and both facilities have long been criticised for their deplorable conditions. He has also previously been accused of involvement in wildlife trafficking.

Various spokespeople at the Agriculture Ministry, which is responsible for zoos in the country, said they were unaware of the proposed deal.

Agriculture Ministry spokesman Eang Sophalleth, who last year said he had seen a copy of the government decision to accept the trade, could not be reached for comment.

The exact details of the deal have never been made clear, with Vanda originally saying he would be receiving a pair of white tigers, zebra and gorillas; however he has since made contradictory statements on exactly which species would be involved in the exchange.

But the trade has been opposed since it first came to light in August 2015, with elephant conservation NGO EARS Asia warning at the time that the journey would be too stressful for the elephants, and questioning whether Vanda had the resources to properly care for new animals.

In an interview that month, Vanda admitted to not having the financial resources to care for his animals properly, while dismissing questions about apparent signs of psychological distress being displayed by the underfed animals living in squalid and cramped conditions at Teuk Chhou.

In September, EARS Asia was expelled from the zoo amid mounting opposition to the trade. The NGO had entirely funded the upkeep of the elephants for the previous three years, and paid for their enclosure. By late October, the elephants’ health was visibly deteriorating, and later that month it was revealed a biomedical company heavily involved in animal testing had begun sponsoring the pair.

In December, one of EARS Asia’s major donors, Fiona Hardie, met with Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, and petitioned her to have the trade called off.

In response to news the trade had been cancelled, EARS Asia founder Louise Rogerson expressed her delight, but warned that conditions remained extremely poor for all of the animals kept at both of Vanda’s zoos.

“At present both facilities are sub-standard; captive welfare is very poor, and there is little or no veterinary care reported on site,” Rogerson said.

Since being expelled from Teuk Chhou, Rogerson had established an organisation called Zoo Watch, which is focused on bringing international attention to the conditions at both facilities.

“We look forward to continuing to strive to better the lives of these animals, including Kiri and Seila, together with the Cambodian government,” she said.

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