Kiri, an Asian elephant, plods over the grass at Kampot’s Teuk Chhou Zoo, apparently unflapped by the blessing ceremony that monks have just bestowed on his new enclosure. But he can’t have missed some other changes in the zoo’s past year and a half.
Seventeen months ago, Kiri’s partner, Siela, was so emaciated that she almost could squeeze through the bars of the two elephants’ small, old enclosure. With little shelter from rain or sun, the zoo’s lions, eagles, hornbills, leopards and other animals starved in cramped, rusting metal cages.
“The past 17 months were about stabilising what was really a pretty dire situation,” says Rory Hunter, who with his wife, Melita, funded an intensive effort led by Wildlife Alliance’s Nick Marx to improve the animals’ feeding and living conditions.
The elephants are no longer skin and bones, and their new enclosure, which officially opened Sunday, is three times the size of the old one. It includes a pond for bathing, a hut for sun protection, and a large swath of green grass over which the two animals can roam freely, no longer desperate to escape.
“Now we’re looking for the right way to transform Teuk Chhou into a wildlife education park, so it can be a real benefit to Cambodia,” Hunter says.
The Hunters’ new NGO Footprints will oversee this transformation. At the end of September, Footprints signed an agreement with the zoo’s owner, National Committee for Disaster Management Vice President Nhim Vanda, to take over the zoo’s administration.
Vanda has told Hunter and the Post that he cares deeply for his animals but could no longer afford to give them proper care.
In the coming months, Footprints will direct the zoo’s bulked up staff to improve the other animals’ cages and plan how in the next five years to make Teuk Chhou an environmentally sustainable park where international and Cambodian visitors can learn more about the animals and their protection.
“We’re always looking for gateways where people can get into nature conservation,” says Dr Wayne McCallum, director of Footprints, who along with Monique Counihan, a veteran from Australia’s famous Taronga Western Plains Zoo, is one of Teuk Chhou’s new expert hires.
These experts hope to improve the experience of not just the zoo’s animals but also its visitors by developing education programs for schoolchildren, environmentally friendly architecture, and even a hillside restaurant with a view of Kampot’s river and mountains.
Of course, these plans will cost a good deal of money. The newly opened elephant enclosure, supported by the Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation, cost $35,000, and basic feeding and care for the animals costs the zoo $8,000 per month, Hunter says.
Hunter can’t predict the whole project’s price tag, since it is still in the planning stages, but says it will be “in the millions”.
“With the lease agreement in place, we’re starting to look at larger private and governmental donors like USAID and Aus-AID,” he says.
The project already has several individual donors and sponsors. Meanchey, a tiger pacing back and forth in a small cage, is sponsored by a telephone company, McCallum says.
Meanchey’s cage currently bears a sign warning that the zoo is not responsible for any injuries caused by the animals. McCallum says increased sponsorship should allow Footprints to replace the cage with a sounder structure that will be more stimulating for its occupants.
To draw in the international crowd staying in nearby Kampot town and the surrounding guesthouses, Footprints is putting out pamphlets and advertising events like a program that allows tourists to “experience a day in the life of a zookeeper” for $45 per person. These sorts of programs will help the zoo bulk up its current income from admission fees of $4 for foreigners and $1 for Cambodians.
Khouy Sroyneag, 29, a local Kampot resident, and her three young children are among the few dozen visitors to the zoo on Sunday afternoon.
As the children stand on tiptoe and peer down at a several large fish crowded into a narrow tank, Sroyneag say this is their first visit to a zoo.
“Especially after it improves, we would return, and maybe we’ll see more people here soon,” she says. One of her sons shyly agrees that he’d like to come back.
McCallum hopes the improved zoo will encourage children to get more in touch with their environment.
“We want this to be where people can come learn and make decisions about what to do in the world later,” said McCallum, who says he was frustrated when his previous work with conservation organisations was undone by government officials' decisions to grant concessions to large companies.
At Teuk Chhou, he wants to get the children of these decision-makers excited about environmental conservation and aware of their rich natural heritage. “We want to be reframing this as something we need to be proud of,” McCallum says.
Hunter agrees, noting that the zoo contains many of Cambodia’s hallmark animals, including Indochinese leopards, tigers and a sarus crane.
“Like Angkor Wat, these animals should be a big part of Cambodia’s national identity,” he says.
To contact the reporter on this story: Justine Drennan at [email protected]