Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Secrecy surrounds casino's dead dolphins

Secrecy surrounds casino's dead dolphins

Secrecy surrounds casino's dead dolphins

Endangered Irrrawaddy dolphins captured by a private zoo in Koh Kong are dead, says

zoo management, confirming what conservationists have suspected and Safari World

has tried to cover up for more than two years.

Ra Phin, general manager of the Koh Kong International Resort Casino, which owns

Safari World on the Thai border, admitted the rare dolphins had died some time ago.

"Those dolphins are dead a long time," Phin said when asked about the Irrawaddy

dolphins, although he could not remember when they had died.

He said a former park manager, identified only as an American named Mr John, was

sacked after the deaths.

The Post could not independently verify the deaths as Safari World staff refused

access to the dolphin enclosure behind the performing area and would not allow reporters

to speak with animal trainers, saying only the president, casino magnate Ly Yong

Phat, could comment, and he is currently abroad.

One of the few people ever allowed backstage is dolphin researcher Touch Seang Tana,

a member of the Economic and Cultural Observation Unit (OBSES) of the Council of

Ministers. He described two pools about 20 meters square, but said the three meters

depth of the enclosures was insufficient for the rare dolphins.

There were seven Irrawaddy dolphins alive when he visited in June 2002, and he feared

for their survival then.

"I'm sure they would die because this species needs space," he said. "They

need a column of water not less than five or seven meters."

Zoo staff were instructed not to speak to the media, but one security guard confirmed

there were no Irrawaddy dolphins currently being held at Safari World.

The Irrawaddy species is sought after by aquariums because they can be kept in freshwater

tanks. Ten Chinese parks are known to have Irrawaddy dolphins; Singapore has four

creatures and Japan has three.

But with reports of 80 new marine parks planned for development in Asia, Thailand

is pushing for a ban on the trade of Irrawaddy dolphins at the Convention on International

Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference currently

under way in Bangkok.

The Irrawaddy, which only inhabit the deep pools of certain rivers or coastal estuaries,

are threatened throughout Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and northern Australia.

Several populations are on an international 'red list' of endangered species.

Despite ratifying its membership to CITES in 1997, a sub-decree on animal trade that

was due to come into enforcement this June has been delayed due to the political

deadlock, said Suon Phalla, a CITES officer working within the government.

Phalla has not issued permits for any of the animals at Safari World but wasn't sure

about permits granted before he started the job in September 2003.

Controversy has followed the Irrawaddy dolphins since their capture from coastal

waters off Koh Kong in 2002, with government officials reluctant to answer calls

to investigate the living conditions of the creatures.

Credible information about the dolphins has been limited by confusion and fear within

the government and secrecy at the zoo.

An undated list of animals at Safari World from one of Ly Yong Phat's companies,

obtained in September this year, indicates that 12 dolphins remain at Safari World

but does not say which species they are.

Cambodia has cracked down on wildlife trade with the help of conservation NGOs in

recent years, but government officials say private zoos are outside their jurisdiction.

"Because they invest money they have the right to do that," said Ung Try,

deputy director of the Department of Fisheries, who said his own inspection in January

2002 found five Indo-Pacific Humpbacks and five Irrawaddy dolphins.

Try said ongoing monitoring was the responsibility of Koh Kong provincial governor

Yuth Phouthang, uncle of kick boxer-turned-movie-star Eh Phouthang and an associate

of Safari World owner Ly Yong Phat.

"It's very difficult to check everything," said Try. "If they report

to us or not report to us, that's up to them, but if they catch the dolphins from

the wild [again] that's illegal. We [would] take action."

The man who claims to have seen the dolphins most recently is Sun Hean, former assistant

to the Minister of MAFF. He previously told the Post he saw four Irrawaddy dolphins

and eight Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins on a visit in September 2003.

However, Isabel Beasley, dolphin researcher, accompanied government officials on

the inspection and said the group was denied access to the permanent enclosure behind

the show pool. Staff refused to discuss the total number of dolphins or their condition.

Contacted for this story, Sun Hean said he had now moved to a new post in the cabinet

of MAFF and was no longer responsible for monitoring the dolphins.

"So far, MAFF asked them [the casino] to release the 12 dolphins, but after

discussions with Koh Kong provincial authorities, the royal government let them keep

the 12 dolphins for playing circus," said Hean of previous arrangements. "The

ministry asked the casino to make a report about how many dolphins they have, even

if the dolphins die."

But those tasked with looking after Cambodia's wildlife fear coming into conflict

with the powerful owner of Safari World.

"I do not dare to talk too much because so far I have not had contact with Ly

Yong Phat, only Sun Hean is very close to Ly Yong Phat," said Men Phimean, director

of the Wildlife Protection Office of MAFF.

He added that Sun Hean still worked as an advisor to his office and suggested contacting

him, bringing the search for official information about Irrawaddy dolphins to a neat

cul-de-sac.

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