Phnom Tamao Zoological Park & Wildlife Rescue Centre (Part 2)

It is rainy season in Cambodia this time of the year (June to August). The expectant rain started to pour down on our tour so we headed for food.

Lunch at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC) is kampong-style. Rows and rows of bamboo open-concept huts to house the zoo’s visitors for lunch. We parked ourselves on one of the stilted huts for a Cambodian local meal of roast chicken, sauteed chicken with herbs, stir-fried vegetables and steamed rice.

All the food is cooked on-the-spot by local stall owners in make-shift kitchens. Nearby kids played soccer with empty beer cans and discarded coconut husks, tugged at one another’s wet clothes and laughed childishly. I don’t remember when I had ever kicked an empty can around for the heck of it.

One thing I love about Cambodia is…food is never wasted. People are so poor here. It is common sight to see children waiting patiently by the sidelines, like little human vultures, for any leftover food to polish off plates. It is no different here at PTWRC. Look at how happy and joyful these kids were when they were given our leftovers.

First stop after lunch, we visited the pair of pileated gibbons. These gibbons are native to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and only approximately 32,000 individual gibbons exist in the world.

Male pleated gibbon
Female pleated gibbon

Siamese crocodiles are believed to be extinct in the wild; wiped out by habitat loss and poaching. But at PTWRC, at least 30 of them can be found in their large enclosures lounging at plain sight. In the world of conservation, this is an extremely rare find because these reptiles are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Another star attraction is the Gaur, also called the Indian bison. It is the 5th largest land animal alive today. Again, the Gaur’s wild population is vulnerable with numbers decreasing due to habitat loss.

Meet Periwinkle, the Gaur. Periwinkle was rescued as a baby calf wandering alone in the forest of Koh Kong. If left alone, he may not have survived. Rescused by PTWRC, Periwinkle was hand-raised by the zoo’s elephant keepers. Today, Periwinkle and the other gaurs are massively-muscled and magnificant-looking animals.

Periwinkle, the Gaur

River otters are extremely social animals, and do everything in a pack. As we walked up to the otter’s enclosure, a group of five lined up right by the fence. They move in surprisingly rapid speed and seamless synchronicity. If one corked its head to the right, the others would follow suit.

A curious river otter

I didn’t realize that river otters are endangered animals. Over the recent years, more and more river otters are disappearing from lakes and rivers around the world due to water pollution, oil spills and hunting. They are often trapped and hunted for their thick and waterproof fur. Even today, a simple search on Ebay will show that a river otter wild hide is shamelessly available for sale (click here).

Even more exciting is our chance meeting with a hairy-nosed otter. This is one of the rarest otter species on Earth!  Until 1998, hairy-nosed otters are thought to be extinct; but small populations of this species are slowly being discovered again.

PTWRC’s hairy-nosed otter is named Pursat. He is hand-raised and probably the most pampered and best-fed animal at the zoo. Due to the extreme vulnerable state of his kind, fresh water and live fish is transported in from the city of Phnom Pehn everyday. Pursat is very curious about people and his environment. When our tour arrived, he came over and stuck his nose right up onto the gate. Perfect for a close-up shoot.

Pursat, the hairy-nosed otter

Next, we came upon a huge cage that was covered in a green tarp. Inside is a huge iguana sleeping on a tree branch. His name is Lipstick. He was sent to the zoo by his owners who had him as a pet until he grew too large and violent for the owners to care for.

Shh…he’s sleeping.

Turtles are shy creatures. And this endangered starred turtle is no different. I think the story is it was rescued from a restaurant in Phnom Pehn; saved from a tortuous and imminent death. These turtles are in the same endangered red-list category as tigers, but most people relate to larger animal species. Hence, endangered turtles do not receive as much attention as they should.

The next stop is the Malayan sun bears. Sun bears are found in tropical forest habitats of Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, their vulnerable population is fast dwindling due to large scale deforestation and commercial hunting. These bears are poached for many reasons: their meat, their organs for use in medicine, their fur and even to sell as exotic pets!

Unfortunately, bear poaching is a huge problem. Here is an indication of how profitable poaching bears are. As of 2011, one bear gallbladder on the black market is USD10,000 and is ranked one of the highest animal commodities on the black market.  

Be warned the following photos are not for the faint-hearted. It shows the cruelty witnessed in the illegal black market for bear parts.

Another sad fact: bear paw soup is considered a delicacy in Cambodia. The paw meat is tender. This kind of soup can cost up to USD1,000 a bowl. But before you order the soup, know this – the cub is taken from the wild and its mother killed. The paws are sawed off (for soup) and the stump is sealed in hot coals and on oil to stop the bleeding.

In 2008, PTWRC rescued two rare Malayan sun bears found in an abandoned garment factory in Phnom Pehn. They were left in cages with no food and no one to care for them. Even after years of rescue and given a massive enclosure at the zoo, some bears still pace up and down endlessly along a piece of rock (such as the one shown below). Land and space is not something they are used to.

At the end of the tour, we got interaction with the zoo’s monkeys. We went into the giant cage with fresh longans in our hands; and monkeys came flying off tree branches and crash landing on our shoulders and heads.

Ali, one of the monkeys and my favourite, is a gentle and lovable monkey who was rescued from a restaurant where he was found smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol for entertainment and commercial profit.

If you are lucky, you might get two or more monkeys flying at you. They will sit on your shoulder (with your head cocked at an angle), peel the longan shell with their soft human-like hands and devour the fruit like it is their last meal.

With Ali and Charlie, the monkeys.

This is part two of a two-part feature of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. Click here to read part one.

Wildlife Alliance is a non-for-profit organization that works with local governments and communities to implement conservation programs in Southeast Asia, Russia, South America and Western Pacific.

Tour cost is a minimum donation of USD150 per person. Run by mainly volunteers and funded by corporate sponsorships, tour proceeds go directly to the rescue and care of the wildlife at PTWRC. The tour includes hotel pick-up and drop-off, lunch, zoo transport, free T-shirt painting by Lucky the elephant and interaction with the animals and animal keepers.

For more information on Wildlife Alliance and this tour, click here.

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