The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre’s primary function is to save, rehabilitate and breed endangered, indigenous wildlife and it does this in some 6,000 acres of secondary scrub (also under rehabilitation), 40 kilometres south of Phnom Penh.
All animals here were rescued from private zoos, markets, hunters and trappers and so on, although with the abundant food and security found here, a large number of wild animals such as macaques and certain stork species have also moved into the area. Additionally as dubious private zoos have closed down Phnom Tamao has inherited several non-indigenous species, such as African lions. While it is described in some literature as a ‘zoo’ that’s simply because they need to encourage locals’ to come visit.
The centre was originally set up by the Cambodia Forestry Department, who donated the land, but it's now managed in cooperation with NGOs such as Wildlife Alliance and Free the Bears. The former, in tandem with the Forestry Department, conduct regular patrols in protected areas such as Rattanakiri and the Cardamoms and there’s a constant flow of rescued and injured wildlife into the centre.
Phnom Tamao at last count housed more than 1,000 animals from more than 100 species, many of which are categorised as endangered or threatened. (The combined Asian brown and Malaysian sun bear population now stands at more than 150.) This creates a huge strain on limited resources, with funding reliant on donations, entrance fees and limited government assistance.
Administrators admit that a lack of funds means many animals are housed in far from ideal conditions. They would like visitors to bear in mind that if the residents weren’t here, most of them would be dead. Furthermore, while the ideal end result is rehabilitation, some species such as elephants are notoriously problematic to return to the wild, while deforestation means a lack of suitable areas to release species such as tigers. Some animals, for example the most famous inhabitant, Chouk the three-legged elephant, need permanent care. Certain animals, rescued from traps or injured by hunters for example, are severely traumatised and best given a wide berth. Access to the elephants is restricted and watch out for the sociopathic adjutant stork by the pelican pond.
The overall site is extensive but an easy walking tour will allow you to take in most of the important features without recourse to a guide or transport. From the carpark, start in the large Sambar deer enclosure to the immediate left which also includes a pond for water birds such as storks, herons and pelicans. Many of these are actually wild visitors as are the hordes of macaques. There’s also a huge, but fortunately passive, boar and a crocodile enclosure.
From here, make your way up the main track past cages housing various wild cats, primate species and some very cute otters. (Again, a shortage of funds and a large influx of animals means conditions are often far from ideal.) At the first fork, bearing right will lead you up towards the Free the Bears section, with an interesting display and its enormous sun bear and Asian brown bear population. To the right are tigers safely housed behind solid fences (none of the abhorrent selfies-with-big-cats scene at Thailand’s farcical and now happily closed Tiger Temple).
Continuing round the foot of a low hill leads you back round to the elephant enclosure, beyond which are a row of simple cafes offering fried rice and cold drinks. Again you can see the pachyderms at a distance but there are no rides or football matches here. Straight on takes you back to the main carpark.
Temple fiends should note that steps leading up a low hill by the traffic circle just before the ticket booth will take you to a recently built Buddhist wat but also an ancient Angkor-period brick tower, Prasart Phnom Tamao. The tower is in a seriously ruined state but does still contain a couple of interesting sandstone lintels.
This is a far from perfect but a highly worthy project and one certainly deserving of your entrance fee. It's depressing in some respects when you see the sheer number of rescued animals, but you can feel some optimism when you see that care is being taken. Indeed the re-introduction of pileated gibbons to the Angkor area has been one of several recent notable success stories. Deforestation, poaching and trafficking continue to threaten Cambodian wildlife so these animals 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 a number of ways of visiting the park, depending on how much you want to pay. The cheapest though not easiest way to go is to hire your own scooter 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 guided tour with the Wildlife Alliance can be a wonderful experience. Here they give you the chance to meet, feed and interact with the animals that the centre has rescued. For $150, this may be the experience of a lifetime.
Thirdly, Free the Bears does a bear-focused full-day tour, with no direct contact with the bears. Participants get a behind the scenes tour, help prepare food, enrichment toys and treats for the bears, and do a scatter feed in the enclosure. It costs US$70 for one (US$65 per person for two) and includes roundtrip transportation from Phnom Penh, lunch, guide and t-shirt. See their website for more information. http://www.freethebears.org/index.php/help-the-bears/bear-care-tour.
If you’re already in Takeo and have a bike then the return ride up highway 2 is a straightforward and pleasant enough trip or a return taxi fare from Takeo should be around $40 including waiting time. You can increase your value for money by including Tonle Bati making for a full half day trip from either Phnom Penh or Takeo. A taxi for both sites shouldn’t cost more than $50 and if you’re returning to Takeo you could even request a stop at Phnom Chisor on the way back making for a full day tour.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 8th February, 2017.
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