The tall ginger-haired lady is the first to spot Charley. Her pace quickens towards his squeals. His voice fills the forest around the enclosure. “Oh my baby boy!” she shouts.
Charley is a macaque monkey. Yulia Khouri and David Harris are his parents. In a huge plastic bag they carry food that Charley likes best: peanuts, grapes, white bread, bananas. When they pass the security gate at his home in Phnom Tamao Rescue Wildlife Centre, 40km south of Phnom Penh, Charley jumps on the tall woman’s neck. He starts kissing her, joining his lips together and stretching them out in a pout. Then he jumps onto the man and hugs and kisses him. Among macaques it’s called lip smacking.
After Yulia and Darren, a couple who run a consultancy agency in Phnom Penh, rescued him from hunters on Koh Rong Island they decided to take him home. As a young macaque on his own in the wild, he would have died. They raised him as their own for nine months before he became too difficult to manage, and the couple knew he belonged in the wild.
They raised US $2000 to build him his own enclosure, where they brought him last week, through a Facebook campaign that drew thousands of ‘likes’ and won the hearts (and pockets) of Phnom Penh. Now the couple are campaigning to draw attention to the plight of his species, which is under threat from the illegal hunting trade.
Macaque exports from Cambodia jumped exponentially in just 10 years, from 200 in total between 1999 and 2003 to 32,392 in the years between 2004 and 2008 according to the latest report by Animals Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITE). The monkeys are mostly sold to laboratories who pay up to $2000 per animal and use them for scientific experiments.
Charley was one of many monkeys that are trapped in snares in the forests of Koh Rong. When Darren and Yulia found him, he was only a few weeks old. He was one of the last two survivors of a group of macaques that had been killed by locals in a snare, eyewitnesses said.
The other macaque was a grown-up female. Her bare bones on her arm were showing as a result of an injury from a snare; one eye had been ripped out, probably with a machete. The traumatised macaque finally strangled herself in panic with the rope her neck was tied to.
Environmentalists say that hunting is having a dramatic impact on Cambodia’s macaque population. “It is commonly agreed that there has been a sharp decrease in the population in that period of time and it is still going on,” said Nick Marx, the Wildlife Rescue Director at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.
It’s a claim that the government disputes. “There has been a slight increase in the numbers of macaques in the years between 2003 and 2008,” a technical advisor to the Ministry of Forestry, said. “We can’t keep track of this illegal hunting,” he added.
Thinking back on what happened to Charley’s group, Yulia is amazed at the cruelty that appears commonplace in the country. “It remains a mystery to me how a monk can just walk by a cat that is bleeding to death,” she said.
Nick Marx explained it this way: “Westerners come from economically more developed societies and have the luxury of treating animals well.
“I think in the future Cambodians will be the same.”
But adoption by humans is not the answer—something that Yulia and Darren recognise. “We made a mistake keeping him at home so long,”
Yulia said. Many animals at the Wildlife Centre are adults that were left at the centre when their former owners grew tired or the animal became too much to handle. “Eventually they will all bite,” Marx said.
Now in the centre, Charley has moved in with two younger macaques who are helping him to learn how to socialise with his own kind. “Once a wild animal is tamed it may become difficult to release it into the wilderness because it will be easily hunted. It has to be done properly,” Marx added. Yulia and Darren hope that Charley can still ultimately be released into the wild, and staff at the centre are hopeful he would survive.
There is a little pond in the newly built macaque enclosure. Charley gets a swimming lesson from his human parents. He dives back and forth from Darren to Yulia. When he gets out the water he clings to Yulia’s leg. “A wet monkey on my pants, that’s all I want right now.” The smile on her face is mournful. She means it. “It has only been a week that he was not with us. To me it feels like a month.” It’s time to leave and the warden locks the door to the enclosure. As she walks away Yulia has tears in her eyes. Charley screams but he quickly quietens down. For now, his is a success story: he feels comfortable
in the enclosure and has a chance to make it back in the wild.
Innov8 International, Yulia’s company, is organizing a fundraising party called Rumble in the Jungle that will take place at the Ebony Tree restaurant on October 4th, 2012. All proceeds will go to support conservation and wildlife rescue projects in Cambodia.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]