To find people with a hobby is easy enough wherever you are: some collect stamps,
some prefer artifacts, while others amass bus timetables.
The Vice Chairman of the National Council for Disaster Management, Nhim Vanda,
collects animals - and his zoo in Kampot province has more tigers than the average
over-logged Cambodian forest.
These magnificent tigers are part of Nhim Vanda's collection.
Vanda is an MP with the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), and it is with some
relish that he tells who used to own one of his striped beasts: then-General Nhiek
Bun Chhay, who in 1997 was deputy commander-in-chief of the army and the head of
During the fighting between the CPP and Funcinpec, Nhiek Bun Chhay fled for his life
to the Thai border. Among the possessions he left behind was a rare Indo-Chinese
tiger, which Vanda named srosh meaning 'handsome'.
"He escaped," says Vanda simply, "and so I took his tiger."
The Indo-Chinese tiger, he says, is a rare beast indeed. It may not exist much longer
in the wild, but the events of five years ago allowed Vanda to double his personal
collection, courtesy of the Funcinpec general.
"These tigers are very expensive and generate much interest from tourists around
the world," he says.
Private zoos are a controversial topic, and the motivation of their owners is often
called into question. Cambodia's only other private zoo is in Koh Kong; the country's
sole national zoo is at Phnom Tamao near Phnom Penh.
Vanda says he simply wants to provide protection for endangered species, of which
his zoo has more than a dozen types, so that the younger generation can learn about
their natural heritage.
He ran into flak over his passion for wildlife two years ago when the Post published
a story in which a wildlife smuggler accused Vanda of trafficking in endangered animals.
The accusation followed a series of undercover sting operations in Phnom Penh in
which seven tigers and three sun bears were rescued from dealers.
The smuggler said Vanda had bought two tigers and a lion from Thai-based dealers,
and used his vehicles to transport the animals to the capital.
Vanda refutes the allegations.
"From 1979 until today I haven't committed any serious mistakes such as destroying
state property," he says.
"I value my honor and have done so since I was a clerk."
Regardless of the veracity of the allegations, what is certain is that Vanda's private
zoo is well-stocked indeed. Tek Chhou, eight kilometers northwest of Kampot town
and which was inaugurated in January 2000, contains 82 different types of wildlife.
Other than his seven tigers, the zoo contains lions, Asian golden cats, fishing cats,
leopards, elephants, ostriches and other species. He is especially proud of the big
cats, and says the tigers breed every year.
Nhim Vanda shows Nhiek Bun Chhay his zoo during a Funcinpec delegation visit.
There are also around 2,000
fruit trees in a plantation containing durian, rambutan and mango. Vanda readily
admits he doesn't have much in the way of knowledge when it comes to animals: much
of the success is down to old-fashioned luck and the zoo's excellent location on
a mountain slope.
"I am not very scientific when it comes to wildlife, but none of these wild
animals has ever died," he says. "I have a real passion for wildlife, particularly
tigers and lions because they are so rare."
The CPP legislator says the encouragement to go ahead with his zoo came from Prime
Minister Hun Sen, for whom Vanda works as an advisor. The PM asked him six years
ago to work more closely with the environment, a subject Vanda says has long been
close to his heart.
He was less forthcoming when asked where the land on which the zoo stands came from,
and steered the conversation back to his motivations.
"I want to build a reputation for my family, so that after I die people will
see the wildlife in my zoo and remember my name," he says.
There is little doubt Vanda feels strongly about endangered species, particularly
tigers: his rare Indo-Chinese tigers are included in a breeding program with another
of the species in the national zoo. And he says he was frustrated recently after
two rare gaur were illegally exported to Thailand.
"I asked my people to stop them, but it was too late," he says. "They
told me they saw these two buffalo being exported across the border."
Vanda says he has invested around $700,000 of his own money on the 25 hectare site;
most was used to set up the infrastructure and to construct the wildlife shelters.
"I don't think many people are prepared to spend their own money on saving wildlife,"
he points out.
His former zoo in his native Prey Veng province covered only 20 hectares. These days
it contains around three tons of live fish, which 'Uncle Vanda', as the locals call
him, breeds then releases each rainy season across 3,000 hectares of farm land.
"I am very happy with my good reputation," he says. "When the villagers
catch my fish they are reminded that these are Uncle Vanda's fish. That helps to
make my name very popular among the farmers in the district."
However all is not well at Uncle Vanda's new zoo: a combination of flooding and drought
meant he had to relocate from Prey Veng to Kampot three years ago.
These days falling tourist numbers and a general cash crunch caused by the cost of
livestock for the meat-eaters are making things difficult in Kampot.
Baby elephants at the private zoo show interest in sugar cane.
"If the drought and floods continue I will face more difficulties earning the
money to feed my animals," he says. "Drought and flooding have affected
the Cambodian people so much that now they have no money to visit my zoo."
Foreign tourists are charged $2 each, and locals 1,000 riel per visit. Vanda says
that helps Tek Chhou generate between $500 and $1,000 a month, but doesn't cover
One of the biggest expenses is the sheer number of cows required to feed his tigers
and other carnivores: around 165 a year are needed. Vanda hopes that the income generated
by selling fruit from his plantation will make up the difference. That brings in
around $10,000 a year.
And if that doesn't work? The best suggestion the Post could come up with is to return
Nhiek Bun Chhay's tiger, but that, frankly, is unlikely. It seems the pressure is
squarely on the durians, mangos and rambutans to help feed Nhim Vanda's collection
of endangered and hungry beasts.