Cambodia’s ‘zoo of horrors’ is being transformed. Ellie Dyer heads to Teuk Chhou Wildlife Education Park in Kampot town to see what changes are being made.
Inside the gates of Kampot’s Teuk Chhou wildlife park, a dedicated team of animal lovers has united behind a common goal: to change a failing zoo whose skeletal animals made headlines 18 months ago into a state-of-the-art environmental education facility.
It’s an ambitious aim for a sprawling park that is home to 43 species, including tigers, lions and elephants. In March 2011, The Phnom Penh Post newspaper painted a deeply troubling picture of a facility that had fallen into disrepair under the headline ‘The Zoo of Horrors’.
Calling it “quite possibly one of the worst” zoos in the world, the story was accompanied by a photograph of an emaciated elephant, whose bones were clearly visible as it strained through the bars of its enclosure to eat blades of grass.
But along with exposing the poor conditions at Teuk Chhou, which the well-meaning owner put down to a lack of funds, the article had a longer lasting effect — it sparked the road to change.
Expat couple Rory and Melita Hunter, the husband and wife team behind the luxury Song Saa island resort off Sihanoukville, were so moved by the article that they stepped in to help reform the zoo using their own finances.
“There was rubbish in the cages and it was just not a great environment. There were so many things that could be done quickly to make a really big improvement,” says Rory Hunter, who took “step by step” measures to stabilise the facility with the help of Wildlife Alliance’s Nick Marx.
In September, a 30-year lease was brokered that enabled their newly-formed NGO, Footprints, to oversee the zoo’s development.
“The fact is a lot of animals were dying, and we had a gibbon that looked like it had come from a death camp,” recalls Footprints’ director, New Zealander Dr Wayne McCallum.
Slowly but surely, vast improvements are being made. Though some animals remain in small cages earmarked for future development, donations have enabled a new elephant enclosure — costing more than $30,000 — to be built.
Officially opened last month, the sprawling space is the improved home of Kiri and Seila, a male and female elephant both thought to be 15 to 20 years old. Believed to have spent a decade of their lives in a small, inadequate enclosure, experts say their growth has been stunted by malnutrition.
“They’d had this for 10 years. It was smelly, dirty, filthy, muddy,” says Louise Rogerson, of Hong Kong-based elephant charity EARS, which helped build the new home. Now the pachyderms have at least an acre of room, a clean pool, plentiful food and activities to pique their interest.
“Kiri’s favourite toy is a tyre,” says Rogerson, watching as the bull plonks himself down in a large pile of sand, following a blessing ceremony for the new centre. “They are so much happier.”
More change is planned as the team develops a master plan with the aim of turning the facility into a wildlife park and education centre.
“The park will be based on habitats: so wetland habitats for birds, rainforest, jungle habitat,” Rory Hunter says. “It’s very much a journey that you can go on that’s relevant to Cambodian fauna and also Cambodian flora.”
The ambitious vision is estimated to cost “a million plus” and the team is looking for funding in order to reach its goal. In the meantime, with feeding costs alone estimated at $8,000 a month, animals are available to sponsor. A recently launched ‘Paws and Claws’ programme also allows visitors to get a taste of the day to day challenges of zoo-keeping.
The Hunters are realistic about the need for long-term sustainability. “For any initiative to work it needs to stack up financially. Funding is one element … but it needs to work as a business,” Rory says.
Despite the financial challenges ahead, one certainty is the love the Teuk Chhou team of 12 staff members have for the animals under their care.
McCallum has bonded with much of the wildlife, including a young tiger called Meanchey. When the powerful cat nuzzles up to the bars, purring, the Footprints’ director does the same. Later, he carefully cradles a giant hornbill’s beak in his hands, an act that seems to hypnotise the bird before it begins to flick chunks of watermelon into the New Zealander’s hands.
“For me, this is a legacy project,” explains McCallum, who previously worked in the Cardamom Mountains in western Cambodia. “This is something I want to dedicate the rest of my life to.”
For more information about the zoo, visit teukchhou.com.