Wildlife Alliance is giving a day at the zoo a whole new meaning. Marissa Carruthers and Charles Fox go behind the scenes at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre with the conservation NGO.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a scene from the film Alien. After all, I’m a human locked in a spacious cage, surrounded by a carpet of slimy eyeballs, with something strange writhing around in my stomach.
Look a little closer and you’ll spot that the eyeballs are in fact half-eaten longans. The spindly tail occasionally poking out of my T-shirt is followed by a scrunched-up face – a giveaway that a tiny macaque monkey, whose home I’ve invaded, is playing hide and seek in my clothing.
“Charlie loves hiding in people’s tops,” Nicole Leroux, our Wildlife Alliance guide at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre calls out, as he races out of my clothing, swinging from a hanging rope before landing on an unsuspecting person stood to the other side of the spacious enclosure.
It’s 2pm and we’re half way through the afternoon session of a special tour headed by Wildlife Alliance, which helps to run the Phnom Tamao facility in Takeo province along with the Cambodian Forestry Administration.
The centre is home to more than 1,200 animals rescued from the clutches of poachers, lives of abuse or belonging to species affected by hunting or habitat loss, along with black market demand for medicine, food and pets.
Five hours earlier and I had clamboured, bleary eyed, into a minivan in Phnom Penh with eight others. An hour later I woke up with a jolt as we pulled to a bumpy halt in the middle of a patch of grassland. It wasn’t long before a few of my sharper-eyed companions let out gasps of excitement and pointed to the outskirts of the forest that surrounded us.
A few squints later and I saw a mass of grey lumbering slowly out of the trees in the distance. With its long trunk swinging slowly from side to side, the beast ambled in our direction, a keeper walking in her shadow.
Having been handed a bunch of bananas ahead of the elephant’s arrival, we were given an introduction to the day ahead – a behind-the-scenes tour of the rescue centre – as the female, called Lucky, gobbled fruit from our hands.
With more pachyderms on the agenda, we left Lucky to finish her 20-minute morning walk and headed to the facility’s dedicated elephant enclosure. It sits next to the Wildlife Alliance’s latest project, the Asian Elephant Conservation Centre – made possible thanks to hefty donations raised at last year’s Glamazon fashion spectacular. It aims to provide environmental education on the country’s dwindling elephant population, ongoing conservation efforts and outreach work.
At the enclosure, we found Chhouk, who, like all of the animals we were to meet during the day, had a tragic back-story. In 2007, the then two-year-old elephant was found in Mondulkiri province with a badly injured leg. It is thought he had caught it in a poacher’s snare and tore part of it off.
The limb was infected and Chhouk was near death when he was transported to Phnom Tamao. Since then, he has been nursed back to health and became the youngest elephant in the world to have a prosthetic leg.
However, the harrowing experience left him wary, and we stayed back as the keepers used gentle techniques to coerce him into raising his leg so that his fake foot could be changed, a procedure that takes place twice a day. As one keeper made a clicking sound and the other tapped his leg, he lazily raised it into the air, giving them enough time to unstrap the hefty fake foot and replace it with another, while Chhouk munched on the reward of turnips.
With many working elephants across the country being trained through violence, Wildlife Alliance aims to show that positive re-enforcement is a much better method. The proof is in the pudding, with Lucky returning from her stroll around the expansive reserve in order to paint our T-shirts. It took five months of training for her to pick up a paintbrush with her trunk and swipe brushstrokes onto those standing in front of her. Each time she successfully swipes a splash of colour, she is handed an edible treat.
“The tours have immensely helped to drive forward new initiatives to improve the animals’ care, and raise awareness and public perception of Phnom Tamao,” says Nick Marx, Wildlife Alliance’s Director of the Care for Rescued Wildlife Programs, explaining that the tours launched last year in response to the organisation “struggling to make ends meet.”
With the first 90 minutes of the day already full of surreal experiences, the rest of the tour was spent meeting other members of the rescue centre family.
Stepping into a tigers’ lair was an adrenaline rush. We were allowed a sneak peek into the keepers’ section, an area not usually open to the public. A row of large cages house tigers at night, and we found a female cat snoozing safely behind bars, just whiskers away from where we stood.
The tiger’s mother had been rescued from being shipped to China, where she was destined to be used in traditional medicine. A muscular tiger, according to Wildlife Alliance, is worth $100,000 on the black market, with the going rate for a sole whisker standing at $10.
Later on, we were introduced to a string of creatures, including clouded leopards, cat leopards (named because they are similar in size to a domestic cat), small-clawed otters, moon and sun bears, pythons, and given the chance to feed the baby macaques. As we wearily climbed back on the minivan after accompanying Lucky on her afternoon walk, I decided this was, without a doubt, an experience worth trading my weekend lie in for.
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre runs day-long behind the scenes’ tours for $150 from Monday to Saturday. For more information, visit phnomtamaotours.com.