Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Phnom Tamao "Zoo"

Baby paleated gibbon at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre

On Saturday, we checked one item off our Cambodia bucket list—we visited Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Centre. Phnom Tamao is advertised in Phnom Penh as a zoo, but it’s much more than that—it’s one of the best wildlife rescue centers in Southeast Asia, where the goal is to treat the animals’ medical needs and release them back into the wild, not to display them to the public. The animal handlers that I saw wore Wildlife Alliance t-shirts, so I assume there’s a relationship between Phnom Tamao and Wildlife Alliance, though I’m not certain exactly that that relationship is.

Fast friends: Our tour guide's wife greeting Lucky the elephant

Rather than going on our own, which would have been entirely possible, we arranged to join a tour run by Betelnut Jeep Tours. Their website promises exclusive access to the animals and to not-open-to-the-general-public areas, as well as transportation and lunch. Overall, we were happy with their services and with our experience at Phnom Tamao, but I was disappointed that some aspects of the tour didn’t quite match up with the website’s promises or with the experiences that I know others have had with them—we weren’t able to go into the tiger house, nor did we have any up-close interactions with the animals that weren’t available to everyone (except for going “backstage” between the otters and the leopards, which did get us significantly closer to the leopard than we would have been out on the main path—but I’m not sure that counts as an “encounter” since it would be foolhardy at best to pet a leopard); of less importance, there was no traditional Khmer wine or betelnut chewing lesson after lunch. (To be fair, I was dehydrated enough that I would have turned down the wine, and I’d already decided to watch but not participate in the betelnut chewing. I mostly was interested in the photographic opportunities of the betelnut lesson.) Despite my awareness that parts of the experience were not as advertised, however, it was a good day, and I do believe that it’s worthwhile to visit Phnom Tamao for the first time with Betelnut. Subsequent trips, if you’re in the area long enough to have them, would be equally enjoyable on your own, once you’ve had the guided tour once.

Wild macaque

Our day started out at the Lazy Gecko Café & Guesthouse, which I believe is run by the same couple that does Betelnut Tours. We confirmed with Aram, the owner-operator and our tour guide, that we’d be able to interact with the elephants that day (we’d rescheduled twice due to elephant unavailability), paid our fees ($33/adult, with a discounted price for Alexa), and settled in alongside the 9 or so other tourists to wait for the Jeep to arrive. We were all hatted and sunscreened, expecting a full day in the sun, with transportation by open-top Jeep, so I was pleasantly surprised when Aram offered Alexa and me the covered passenger seat by the driver. We all settled in and enjoyed the just-over-an-hour drive, especially once Alexa settled down for an early nap.

Sambar deer--including the one that head butted me!

Once at Phnom Tamao, our first stop was a huge enclosure in which a herd of Sambar deer roamed freely. The deer came right up to us, accepted food from our hands, enjoyed some petting, and even head butted a few of us for neglecting the wrong deer. Fortunately, close attention is paid to the deer’s behavior, and the ones that are a little more assertive have had their horns cut. The ones that are aggressive are in separate enclosures within the larger one.

Siamese crocodile
Several other animals also are in smaller enclosures within the large Sambar deer one. We saw Siamese crocodiles, rox turtles, yellow tailed squirrels—according to our guide, the only two in captivity—and a couple of storks who were recovering from broken wings. We also met a few macaques—several wild ones that had wandered into the enclosure on their own, and one male gibbon who has to be kept in a separate, small enclosure because his cataracts have caused him to lose his sight almost completely. The blind gibbon had been raised as a pet, loves human attention, and never will be released into the wild. A charitable organization is trying to raise money for surgery on his eyes so that he can regain his sight and be placed in a larger enclosure, possibly even with a mate.

Green peafowl
After leaving the Sambar deer enclosure, we walked past several other enclosures of varying sizes—a relatively small one with a few more Siamese crocodiles; a huge one with some Sarus cranes, Eld’s deer, and beautiful Green peafowl; and another smaller one with an iguana that was confiscated while being imported illegally into Cambodia. We also saw a silver langur and some Cambodian jungle cats.

Pileated gibbons: mama and baby

 We also met a family of pileated gibbons, which included an adorable infant, the two parents (mated for life), and an older brother. This family lived in their own enclosure, which shared a wall with the enclosure for a widowed pileated gibbon—she never will mate again or be part of a family group, and family groups don’t share territories with other gibbons, but proximity to other gibbons is good for her. This particular widow tends to get a little angry and hold grudges: some tourists once gave her a can of beer, which she proceeded to enjoy until Aram took it away from her—beer is ok for them in small quantities, but a whole can is too much—and she proceeded to shun him for the rest of that visit and for his next one. When I stopped petting her a little too soon, she literally showed me her backside, another behavior that Aram said is typical.

Picnic platform
After a few more enclosures (myna birds, chickens, and bats), it was time for lunch. We ate on one of several raised platforms under a wood roof. While we had been meeting the animals, Aram’s wife had cooked a delicious Khmer meal for us: rice, loc lac, a noodle dish, sweet and sour vegetables, and a few meat-in-sauce dishes whose names I don’t know. I briefly considered taking a photograph, but we were all pretty hungry, and we just dug in instead. Water was included with the tour, but Jeff and I chose to purchase fresh coconuts (only fifty cents each) and drink the coconut water instead—it’s tastier, it replenishes lost electrolytes, and two coconuts was more than enough for all three of us. Fresh pineapple for dessert rounded out the meal and utterly delighted Alexa.

Lucky the Asian elephant takes a bow
After lunch, it was time to meet Lucky, one of the Asian elephants who live at Phnom Tamao. Lucky came out and did a little show—taking a bow, playing limbo before deciding to just break the post instead, lying down, and playing soccer with his handler—before coming to greet his fans and accept his payment: pets, pictures, and sugarcane. When Alexa got up the courage to try to feed him (she’d been a little iffy about petting or feeding all the animals, as she’s cautious by nature), Lucky didn’t seem to notice the sugarcane she held out toward him. Aram’s wife gave her a mango to try instead, and sure enough, it worked like a charm: Lucky not only took the mango from Lexa, but started accepting sugarcane only to throw it on the ground, holding out for more mango.

Burmese pythons

After Lucky’s show, we piled into the Jeep to head to a slightly more distant section of the rescue center. There we saw five Burmese pythons huddled together in their enclosure and learned that they each eat one live chicken a week—they only grow as large as their diet allows, and they don’t require much energy at all, so those kept as pets may eat as little as one mouse a month.

Then we went into a restricted area beside the enclosure that holds two otters, allowing us a closer look than we’d get from the public area. It’s a testament to Phnom Tamao’s status as a rescue center, not merely a zoo, that the otters have two rather large areas, connected by a small gate. One area has toys and a more “homey” feel—that one is their living habitat. But in the wild, otters do not hunt where they live, so the other habitat is designed to be their hunting habitat, preserving the separation that they prefer.


After we’d finished looking at the otters, we turned around and prepared to follow Aram to the next enclosure. He cautioned us to stay to the otter side of the narrow (maybe one meter across) path, and then I saw why: a leopard was lying on his side of the chain link fence, mere inches from the path, watching us closely—and the fence actually had a little outward arc to it that suggested that the leopard was not content always just to lie there. It’s easy to see how he could have gotten a swipe at us had we not avoided that side of the path. We saw two leopards in that enclosure, though only one came close, and were told that another male was in the building; he and his brother aren’t getting along right now, so they have to take turns being outside.


Then we headed across the street to the binturongs’ enclosure. These animals were the strangest ones we saw, without a doubt. They looked like a cross between a bear and a squirrel, smelled like popcorn, and giggled like little girls. Jeff was fascinated with these creatures; Alexa was trying to decide whether or not they were interesting enough to stay awake and watch; and I was frustrated that the darn things didn’t want to go anywhere that would allow me a good picture—they’re nocturnal and mostly were interested in lying around on platforms high off the ground.


After checking in with a couple of solitary gibbons, we headed over to the tiger area. We saw all three of the tigers who live at Phnom Tamao—the father, the mother, and the now-adult son who was conceived and born at Phnom Tamao when mom’s birth control failed. They try not to breed any tigers at Phnom Tamao, because tigers born into captivity never can be released into the wild.

Asian elephant

We walked by the elephants’ enclosures but weren’t able to get close to them. Aram told us the histories of the animals there, including the one who lost his leg to a snare. He now has a prosthetic leg, which is replaced as necessary as he grows. Apparently he’s ok with his keepers now, but for a while after receiving his prosthesis, he would cower in a corner when they came near for fear they would take it away from him (they had to take it off periodically to check his stump, or for maintenance, or to fit a new one).

Asiatic black bear (or "moon bear")

Our last stop of the day was the area reserved for bears. This area is a project of Free the Bears and currently houses around 220 bears. Many of the bears were rescued from restaurants that illegally serve dishes such as bear paw soup—cutting the paw off the live bear in front of the customer to ensure its freshness. Others were rescued from traps, from smugglers, or from owners who mistreated them.

Daddy leopard
After the bears—and a few lions who wouldn’t come near enough the edge of their enclosure for me to get a decent picture—it was time to pack it up and go back to Phnom Penh. Since there wasn’t room for everyone in the Jeep (as we traveled around Phnom Tamao, a few were hanging off the sides, which was neither practical nor safe for the trip back to Phnom Penh), our family and another couple rode with Aram’s wife in her comfortably air conditioned car. Alexa quickly fell asleep, Jeff dozed a bit, and I just relaxed, content to be sitting down and cool after a good but hot and tiring day at “the zoo.”

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