A leopard appears healthy and strong as it paces the walls of its cage with a confident swagger and muffled growl that hints at its ferocity.
It’s a welcome sight at Kampot province’s much-maligned Teuk Chhou zoo, which less than one year ago was struggling to feed its emaciated animals as they languished in tiny, rusted cages that offered little or no shade from the sun’s searing heat.
“She’s in better condition; every animal here has put on weight,” says Wildlife Alliance’s wildlife rescue and care director Nick Marx, one of the men entrusted with bringing this zoo – and its animals – back from the brink.
“There have been a few new animals, a few have died, but it’s around the same. Maybe previously they weren’t receiving enough food,” the experienced wildlife worker says.
Marx is leading us on a tour of the zoo to show us the early stages of what financial backers Rory and Melita Hunter hope will be a huge transformation of the site, which lies in a tourist-rich area at the foot of Bokor Mountain, a short drive from Kampot town.
When the Post visited the zoo last March, conditions were so appalling that skeletal elephants living in faeces-filled cages were stretching their trunks through thick bars in a desperate attempt to eat blades of grass. Other cages, which had housed bears and an otter, were eerily empty.
“Every animal is better fed now,” Marx explains as he leads us closer to the elephants.
Their enclosure, which we soon discover has been improved by a $20,000 sheltered containment area, proves change is happening.
Most striking is the physical improvement of the two elephants, which are looking healthy.
“They were just skin and bones. Look at their stomachs now. I feel they are smaller than they should be. But they’re doing fine now,” Marx says.
Early signs are also hopeful for the other animals, which include tigers, a lion, a bear, gibbons, orangutans and an array of birds, including a rare vulture.
Shade covers have been installed in many cages, additional shelter inside has been built for animals that need to retreat, and rubbish that contaminated the zoo’s now lush, green grounds is gone.
What stands out as well, however, is how small many of the cages are.
“You can see an awful lot of work is needed on the enclosures, but the animals are better fed and well cared for. We have a good relationship with His Excellency Nhim Vanda [the zoo’s owner],” Marx says.
The Hunters, whose names are plastered on a sign near the zoo’s entrance, have pledged an undisclosed amount of money and negotiated a 15-year deal with Nhim Vanda, to transform Teuk Chhou into more than just a zoo, project coordinator Wayne McCallum explains as we pass ostriches and crocodiles.
“They said they wanted to do something as private individuals,” he says.
“Basically, their bank account has brought this money in. It does cost a lot. So that’s not sustainable in the long term.”
So what will happen when the money runs out?
“[The Hunters] are setting up a foundation . . . people who would like to support can contribute funds and know that those funds are going to be used for particular tasks here at Teuk Chhou,” McCallum, who has worked in conservation in Cambodia on and off since 2003, says.
“We’re not an NGO, so we can’t go through the traditional funding routes . . . but we’re looking at the business community and hoping to appeal to their philanthropic side.
“We want to turn this into a wildlife and environment education centre. We’d like to turn this into something special so there is nothing like it in the Lower Mekong region.”
McCallum says his group hopes to raise $500,000 in the next 12 months to fund some of the bigger structural projects.
“We’re looking at setting that up with fundraising events in Phnom Penh and beyond. That’s going to be our focus.
“We need funds in the short term – you’ve still got to feed the animals – but then we need the next step. We’ll be tapping on a lot of doors.”
Despite the fine weather, the zoo is relatively quiet; it’s a weekday.
Foreign tourists occasionally walk or cycle past us and Khmers enjoying the eclectic mix of native and imported animals comprise a decent percentage of the patrons.
Sek Sovannara, a 40-year-old beer company worker from Phnom Penh, says he and his family are pleased to see endangered animals in a zoo.
What concerns him, however, is the size of the cages they are in.
“Some cages are not big enough,” he says. “Please expand the sizes of cages with proper roofs.”
Buddhist novice monk Mao Sameth, 17, a local, says animals caged at a zoo need to be fed well.
“By Buddhist law, the animals will curse the owner of the zoo if he does not give them enough food. But when the owner treats them well, the animals will bless him,” he says.
But has Teuk Chhou, which charges entry of $4 for foreigners and $1 for Khmers, been blessed with more visitors since the improvements?
Marx is coy on the numbers.
“I never count. Certainly the visitors who come now wonder what the fuss was about. The cages need renewing; we need money to do what we want to do. But the animals are healthy and happy now,” he says.
In the past year, the zoo has employed more staff.
At the request of McCallum, Marx, who has worked with wildlife in the UK, Southern Africa, India and for many years in Cambodia, became more involved after the Hunters came forward with their offer.
“On a monthly basis, ideally we need $8,000 a month. That’s salaries, animal food and it would mean we would have on-site veterinary care,” Marx says.
“But it’s not just money. There was a lack of structure about the work that needed to be done,” he says, adding he has brought his own staff along to help train the zookeepers.
“They’ve been instrumental.”
When we sit down with him outside his house, Nhim Vanda, the first vice-president of Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management, tells us he has always loved his animals, but fell into a situation where he could not afford to feed them properly.
“When I was encountering difficulty, Prime Minister Hun Sen advised me not to transfer the animals to Tamao Zoo because there were many animals already there,” he says.
The National Assembly member claims to have sold as many as 25,000 cows to buy food for his animals.
Securing the zoo’s future is important, which is why he signed a 15-year contract with the Hunters, he says.
“After we cooperated, the animals were reborn . . . they’re healthier and happier,” he says.
Our tour nears an end as we pass an eerie, overgrown children’s playground and Marx shows us the changes he has made to the bird cages.
These include more shade and food holders that keep out ants, but it’s still hard not to notice the tight confines the birds are in.
The zoo has some way to go in securing its future.
With the pictures of emaciated animals still fresh, changing perceptions may take time.
Making people aware of the zoo’s location could be another challenge.
The intentions are good, but it’s clear the big issue is still money.
“We’ve made the changes we can, now we will be as limited as finances allow . . . that’s basically the bottom line,” Marx says.