Kampot province’s Teuk Chhou zoo is a place where no one seems to care about how animals are treated, a place where animals are kept in cramped, roofless shelters and rely largely on food from tourists to survive.
The zoo is privately owned by Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management Vice President Nhim Vanda and staffed by just a handful of people.
It has no roofed-in shelters as the wet season approaches or even any semblance of a natural habitat for the animals as witnessed during a visit over the weekend.
Orangutans and baboons swing restlessly back and forth between the steel bars of their three-metre square enclosures, while eagles and other birds of prey scarcely have enough space to spread their wings, let alone fly – that is if they are one of the lucky few whose wings aren’t badly damaged.
The state of the zoo’s two elephants is heartbreaking, as their emaciated necks stretch through the thick bars of their enclosure in an attempt to eat blades of grass, seemingly one of their few sources of nourishment.
The skeletal bodies of the two animals are hard to ignore and the two have become aggressive, lashing out at visitors who step near their enclosure.
“We feed them bananas and grass,” said a staff member who declined to be named or to comment further.
Yet the elephant enclosure contained only dried-up bamboo shoots, piles of faeces and a pit of stagnant green drinking water that the elephants avoided.
When initially asked about conditions at the zoo last Thursday, Nhim Vanda acknowledged that some of the animals were “thin and sick”, but the zoo would remain “operating as usual”, with an entrance fee of US$4.
Nhim Vanda condemned local NGO Wildlife Alliance today for past criticisms about his zoo and said he paid for the care of his animals out of his own pocket.
“If they know that my animals have gotten thin ... please give me the money to buy food for my animals. They should be proud of me and encourage me because I like my animals more than my own son.”
He also said there was no government policy to provide monetary support to the privately owned facility.
“It is so hard for me to find food and clean water to provide to the animals because in one day I get money from tourists totalling about 20,000 riel (US$5) to 100,000 riel but I pay much more than that for food,” he said.
Nick Marx, wildlife rescue director at Wildlife Alliance, said yesterday that his organisation had previously assisted the zoo.
“We have helped out in Teuk Chhou zoo before and have paid money for food and medicine for animals,” Marx said.
“We even paid for treatment for one of their elephants when it was seriously injured … the problem is that we
don’t have the money to help extensively.”
He said some members of Wildlife Alliance’s rapid-rescue team went to the zoo last week to assess conditions and he concluded that it was “the same as it has always been”.
“Nhim Vanda I’m sure loves his animals, but apparently doesn’t have enough money to support them is what we’re told,” Marx said.
“If it was a question of helping the animals, we would take what we can [to Phnom Tamao zoo], but I can’t give thousands of dollars, I just do not have the money to give.”
There has been some conjecture about the number of animals who may have died at Teuk Chhou zoo over the years.
Marx said it remained unclear what happened to the tiger cubs once at the zoo and that a few years ago there were five bears there.
An otter photographed by a visitor and posted on local website Khmer 440 on March 9 shows the mammal in a sickly state, struggling to breathe while covered in green scum from its only source of water.
On Friday there was merely an empty enclosure where the otter once lived.
“Before there were a lot of animals to see, now they’re all gone, I don’t know why,” said Sokna, a nearby resident.
His girlfriend, Chanthy, concurred, saying: “We came to look at all of the animals but there is nothing left.”
In a four-hour period on Friday, they were the only two visitors to the zoo.
The Ministry of Tourism’s website describes the zoo as “a wonderful place to spend a fun-filled afternoon with your family; children especially love the experience”, adding that the zoo featured lions and tigers and their cubs.
Yet only one tiger remains in a small cage bereft of any cubs, while no lions could be found in the larger enclosed space designated for them.
It also said that the zoo included “bears, including a couple of sun bears”, yet only one bear remains at the zoo.
Jack Highwood, head of the NGO Elephants Livelihood Initiative Environment who runs the Elephant Valley Project sanctuary in Mondulkiri province, told The Post on Friday that “elephants aren’t meant to walk the streets of Phnom Penh, or circle Angkor Wat, or live in a zoo”.
A place like his sanctuary in Mondulkiri is more like “their natural habitat. We have a huge area of land here. This is where they are meant to be”.
With regard to the Teuk Chhou zoo, Highwood said: “While I can’t comment on the specifics of this case, here at the EVP we welcome any elephants from any zoo.”
Alma Robinson, a volunteer at the EVP who spent three months working with elephants in Mondulkiri earlier this year, gave a first-hand account of what she had seen in February on a trip to the zoo in Kampot.
“It is now six weeks since I last visited Teuk Chhou Zoo and I am still haunted by what I saw,” she said on Thursday.
“In the midst of all of the surrounding green and beautiful natural habitat I was shocked to find what I can only call ‘a concrete prison’ not only for the two elephants but for all of the animals.
“Small, dirty enclosures – cages lacking clean water – in some cases no water at all and no sign or even remnants of food. My heart went out to these poor, suffering and traumatised animals.”
She said the state of the elephants was of particular concern and their struggle to survive on a day-to-day basis was horrific.
She described their enclosure as “a pathetic, distressing, shocking scene indeed which needs to be brought to the attention of the Cambodian people”.
If the zoo management does not have the financial stability to maintain the facility and the animals in its care, then a high-level investigation must be undertaken by the government and drastic action is warranted.