SIEM REAP - At 2:30 pm on April 27, a government team armed with AK-47 assault
rifles entered Angkor Zoo - a tourist attraction adjacent to the Angkor Wat
temple complex in Siem Reap - and secured the premises ahead of its imminent
The scene was tense, but the takeover proceeded without
incident. The encroaching force of police and members of the Forestry
Administration's Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, with technical help from Wildlife
Alliance, closed down the facility in a move that conservationists and tourists
have been calling for since the zoo's opening in 2000.
"The cages are, at
best, hopelessly inadequate, at worst, downright cruel," said Nick Marx, animal
husbandry specialist for Wildlife Alliance, formerly Wildaid, in a May 2006
evaluation conducted with the government. "As it stands, Angkor Zoo is cruel and
squalid. It detracts from the quality of the setting, and demeans the historical
World Heritage site where it is situated."
In an April interview with the
Post, zookeeper Peav Hong said the facility could only spend about half of what
was needed to feed the animals, and admitted that the enclosures were too small.
At the time, Men Phymean, chief of the FA's Wildlife Protection office, said he
had petitioned the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to allow him
to shutter the zoo and relocate its inhabitants to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue
Center near Phnom Penh.
But Angkor Zoo's Phnom Penh-based owner, Seng
Chhoeun, vowed to fight any order to close and claimed to have the support of
some 300 local families. He defended the zoo as attractive for tourists,
educational and aimed at wildlife preservation.
At the gates of the zoo
on April 27, local families and stall owners watched the raid in silent dread.
The zoo's closure comes only days after the neighboring landmine museum left for
a new location, and many villagers said the moves will devastate their tiny
"A lot of people visit here," said Pin Yet, a local mother
and one of 11 former employees of Angkor Zoo. "Many people sell things, but now
there will be no people. The village will be very quiet. No visitors means no
But Yet agreed she often felt pity for the animals during the time
she worked there.
"I like the animals so much," Yet said. "But we don't
have enough food to make them full. For the animals it will be very happy, but
for us it is sad because we will have no jobs."
On April 30, the zoo's
owner, Seng Chhoeun, said he was unhappy with the closure as the zoo helped the
poor people in the area. He claimed that he did not gain financially from the
zoo, but estimated he has lost around $1,000 due to the closure.
who was on hand to assist the government in evaluating the welfare of the
animals, said after an initial inspection that the biggest veterinary problem
appeared to be parasites.
As a lone otter barked pleadingly at passing
officials, Marx explained that the playful animals are highly social creatures
and to keep one alone is unkind. He will soon join a young female in a large
enclosure at the Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Rescue center.
Marx, the animals will remain on the premises under the care of former
zookeepers assisted by members of the WRRT - a law enforcement squad consisting
of Royal Gendarmerie and Cambodian Forestry Officials.
"The WRRT will be
working along with the current zoo staff so there will be no sudden changes for
the animals," Marx said, adding that until further notice the keepers' wages
would be covered by Wildlife Alliance aid funding.
"I think the problem
here has been a lack of money," he said. "My feeling is there has probably been
no deliberate cruelty."
He explained that the transition must be
gradual, for instance, carnivores that have been fed rice for many years will
slowly have meat reintroduced into their diets. The quantity of food will also
be increased gradually over time.
Long term, some of the animals will be
released and new enclosures will be prepared at Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife
Rescue center near Phnom Penh for those that can not be safely returned to the