Hard to imagine a well-run zoo in a country with as many structural difficulties as Cambodia, but Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre defies expectations in a huge 6,000 acre park 40 kilometres south of the capital. If you’re spending more than a day or two in Phnom Penh, it should be added to your list of places to see.
Home to more than 1,000 rescued animals representing 102 species, many of whom are listed as endangered or vulnerable, the centre is at the heart of Cambodia’s efforts to protect its dwindling wildlife population. The centre currently hosts Malayan sun bears, pileated gibbons, Siamese crocodiles, tigers, Asian elephants, and many more. All of the at Phnom Tamao have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, or are victims of habitat loss. If they weren’t here, they would be dead.
If animals can be rehabilitated, they are released back into the wild under IUCN protocols at one of three release sites. Released animals are monitored to ensure release strategies are successful and the animals are able to survive.
While deforestation, poaching and trafficking continue to threaten Cambodian wildlife (and forestry), these animals will continue to need as much support as they can get from organisations like the Wildlife Alliance, and Cambodia’s own Forestry Administration — whose officials face enormous risks in performing their valuable work.
There are other places in Cambodia that purport to house animals and take care of their welfare, and which have been the subject of repeated controversy. The owner of the private Teuk Chhou zoo in Kampot is forever claiming that he “now” takes good care of the unfortunate creatures in his charge, every single time someone goes down and publicly highlights the conditions there. In January 2016, a wildlife NGO publicly called for this, and another facility in Prey Veng, to be closed down.
What happens at Phnom Tamao is far, far removed from that.
Run by the Cambodian government, who deserve a lot of credit for this undertaking, the huge park holds large enclosures which appear to have been set up to approximate as closely as possible the conditions the animals experience in the wild. They are filled with trees, grasses and vegetation and watching the enormous tiger padding around his enclosure you can really imagine how it might have felt to bump into one of these fellows out in the forests — you start to appreciate the fence quite significantly.
The park is so big that you do need transport to get around — whether that’s the tuk tuk you took down or any other means. The experience is something of a cross between a zoo and a safari.
The one drawback is the number of locals who will pester you to buy tubers to feed to the animals — which makes us wonder how the zoo is controlling the animals’ diets. They can be persistent, but you really don’t need to feel embarrassed about saying no.
There are a number of ways of visiting the park, depending on how much you want to pay. The cheapest way to go is to hire your own scooter for $7 for the day, and make your way down under your own steam.
Alternatively, you could book a tour with Betelnut Tours. They will pick you up and drop you off at the Lazy Gecko Cafe on Street 258. Their tours cost $40, which includes transport, entrance fee and lunch. If you’ve got the money, then an exclusive, behind the scenes tour with the Wildlife Alliance can only be wonderful experience. Here they give you the chance to meet, feed and interact with the animals that the zoo has rescued. For $150, this seems like the experience of a lifetime.
The entrance fee for the park is just $5, which makes it all the more extraordinary how few people you will come across as you make your way around. When we visited at the height of the tourist season, we encountered no more than 20 foreign travellers, and not that many more local visitors. All the better for you!
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 26th February, 2016.