I don’t know what else to do to sustain myself,” says 80-year-old Yeay Et who sits on the road leading to Phnom Tamao Zoo, hoping for donations from tourists passing by. She’s one of many villagers who depend on the visitors to the zoo for financial support. She claims that an average of 4000 Riel a day helps a great deal.
The villagers aren’t the only ones in need of help. The animals at Phnom Tamao Zoo would do some begging themselves if they were given the opportunity.
The zoological gardens – the only part of the centre accessible to the public – is spread across eighty hectares of a forest only an hour’s drive from the capital. A bumpy road leads up to pleasant woods where both Cambodians and foreign visitors flock for an intimate encounter with the country’s wildlife.
Without a tour guide, it is difficult to find the way through the maze of unlabelled cages.
Large alleyways allow smooth circulation for motorbikes and quads, but small enclosures with modest water ponds and little vegetation provide a less accommodating environment for the animals.
“These are bad conditions, not only for animals but also for the visitors,” smirks a tourist as he watches a yellow-throated marten run about in a smelly cage.
Some permanent residents, like the tiger, have been here for long enough to develop hamster syndrome, endlessly running in circles along the fence boundaries.
The grey-headed fish eagle also looks disgruntled. He has evidently spent enough time behind bars to understand that flying is out of the question, so he resigns himself to watching the sky through the ceiling of his enclosure.
To the some eyes, the animals look anything but rescued. The Cambodian National Zoo is fervently berated on travel forums.
“We did not want our children seeing the animals pacing back and forth, back and forth” was one voice of concern from one cautious parent.
Yet, if it offers an experience considerably more muted than the zoos of the west, only a handful of visitors find it sad or disappointing. Even the park’s biggest sceptics appreciate the effort behind the joint initiative of the Forestry Administration and the New York-based Wildlife Alliance.
Ten years ago they took on the laborious task of combatting an illegal trade, providing training to local communities and since rescuing over 50,000 animals from the greedy hands of poachers.
Nick Marx, the director of Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Rescue and Care programs, explains that financing a project encompassing all aspects of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation is a complex matter.
“It leaves us very stretched financially, but the Man Upstairs seems to look after us.”
The organisation is struggling on many levels: a growing animal population, difficulties in monitoring the progress of animals released back into natural habitats, and even angry villagers.
“They [The Forestry Administration] freed some wild boars several years ago and these are breeding prolifically, which has upset local people who are fed up with their crops being destroyed” says Marx.
A visit to Phnom Tamao Zoological Gardens perhaps doesn’t do justice to all of the organisation’s noble goals, but fulfils the original intent of the zoo’s founding in 1995 by the Forestry Administration as a means for giving Cambodians the chance to see their country’s natural wildlife. Judging by the numbers of Cambodian families visiting on any given day, the facility fulfils its duty.
The zoo’s director, Nhek Ratanapich, looks on the bright side: “This is Cambodia and other countries have so much more money. But my animals at Phnom Tamao do better and are much happier.”
Despite imperfections and a lack of funds, improvements are being made for both the visitors and animals. Recently built elevated platforms in lion and tiger enclosures will provide more shade for the animals as well as making it easier for the public to observe them.
“We still may not be the prettiest zoo in the world, but our breeding record and the condition of our animals is testament to the truth of what Mr Ratanapich says,” says Marx. He hopes that their work will find more support and understanding.
To contact the reporter on this story: Dagmarah Mackos at [email protected]