The early morning sun beat down on the city of Phnom Penh as we sat with coffee, waiting for our mini van to arrive at the arranged pick up location. We saw the mini van pull into the car park and a friendly Canadian called Chris jumped out greeting us all one by one. Each us slurped down the remaining dregs of coffee from the bottom of our cups and bundled into the mini van, greeted our second guide and took to our seats as we anticipated the day ahead.
Looking out of the window, busy streets turned to construction zones and then to vast farmland. While en route, we stopped at various markets and roadside sellers purchasing watermelon, lotus seeds and other treats for the animals we would be meeting throughout the day.
We eventually took a turn from the more beaten path found ourselves faced with a sign ‘Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre’, which had the backdrop of scattered trees, dried grassland and in the middle of it an Asian Elephant named Lucky.
Lucky is one of a number of elephants who have found their way to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. Lucky is a fitting name for an elephant that had such a close encounter with death. In 2015 Lucky contracted Endotheliotropic Elephant Herpes Virus (EEHP), a disease that kills 90% of the elephants who contract it. Despite the odds being against her, a teams of vets, keepers and dedicated staff helped her fight the disease and this year she celebrated her 18th birthday.
Meeting the Asian Elephant
The mini van came to a stop and we all bundled out of the van, as Lucky walked towards us, very aware that with a bus full of visitors comes a very good stock of her favourite treat… watermelon. Having spent a day with elephants in Thailand and asking if they can feed elephants every day since, the boys were eager to feed Lucky her Watermelon. Similar to our time in Thailand, being so close to such majestic animals harboured a new found respect of the strength, power and beauty that these giants possess.
Following on from our time with Lucky, we make our way to the first of the ‘behind the scenes’ stops on our tour. This stop was to the elephant enclosures, where we met Chhouk. Chhouk is a young male elephant that was caught in a snare when he was a baby. When he was discovered he was incredibly ill, his foot was badly infected, infested with maggots and nobody was sure if he would make it through. Over time vets, keepers and dedicated staff managed to save Chhouk, but sadly he had to have part of his leg amputated and now needs a prosthetic one.
Getting Chhouk on the road to recovery was a painful one, so his first interactions with humans have left him aggressive towards them. So our first briefing was to stay a good distance form his enclosure as he is classed as a dangerous animal. We made our way along a pathway and took our seats and watched the keepers during their training process with involved clickers and food rewards. This process is vital in order to get close enough to change Chhouks prosthetic foot to ensure nothing that can cause him pain gets inside and to ensure his leg is clean. It was such a fascinating process to watch, but did make Bear slightly upset. I took him away from the enclosure and sat watching birds with him and explaining why Chhouk had to have his prosthetic leg changed. By the time the other visitors left the enclosure, Bear was feeling much better and ready to visit our next stop.
During our time with the elephants the guides taught us about the process of ‘breaking an elephants spirit’ in order for them to be used for various things from elephant riding painting and dancing. There has been a lot about this in the media in recent years, but seeing a bullhook up close was really unsettling.
Learning more about the largest of the big cats
Our next destination was another ‘behind the scenes’ stop, where we got to take a look at the tiger sleeping quarters. It should be made clear that you do not enter the tiger enclosures, but stand at a safe distance outside them. Nobody should want to enter a small space with one of these animals and during this part of the tour the centre guides highlight why establishments that allow practices like that are not ethical.
I was a bit apprehensive about this part of our tour as we had read some comments on Trip Advisor commenting on how some of the tigers looked underfed and too skinny… which in fairness they do. However by having a tour guide with us, we learnt that the reason they look skinny is because they are hybrids. These tigers were from one of the wildlife centres first big busts, where they found a number of tiger cubs. It is believed the cubs were going to be sold for ‘parts’. This means they were bred to be killed, cut and sold in bits for various different reasons such as traditional medicines. Once at the centre, staff were able to do some DNA testing which confirmed they are a mix of Indochina tigers and Bengal tigers, which has somewhat deformed their shape causing them to look skinny in their back legs. Sadly because of the nature of their breeding the tigers have never been able to be released back into the wild.
Visiting the otters and leopard enclosures
Following on from the tigers we visited the otter and leopard enclosures. The boys loved seeing the otters, especially as it was feeding time. We learnt about how the centre is currently trying to find a suitable spot for their release and gave us a bit more insight into the problems the centre faces in terms of rehabilitation and obstacles they have overcome to date. It was very inspiring hearing about the the amazing conservation efforts on the front line.
Free the bears
Our next stop was the bear enclosure, which was the first enclosure we saw that could rival western zoos. We learnt tht although the bears are in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre’s grounds, they are actually funded by ‘Free the Bears’, which means there is a much bigger budget for this enclosure. We had come across ‘Free the Bears’ during our time in Luang Prabang and were interested to learn about more of their conservation efforts across South East Asia.
As the midday sun blared down, causing the temperatures to start climbing, we made our way to lunch. The lunch was served on stilted platforms, where a number of woven mats were circled by hammocks. The lunch was a mixture of different Cambodian food served on sharing platters, alongside coconuts. It was the perfect opportunity to get to know some of our fellow travellers and learn about how they ended up on the tour. Close to the stilted platforms were some swings and a seesaw, which was the perfect thing to break up the day for the boys and allowed them to have some downtime, which is very needed during full day tours.
Learning more about Primates
After lunch we made our way down to the nursery, where we met some recent additions to the centre. One of these was a recent ‘drop in’, where a women called to say she had ‘found a baby gibbon’ and wanted to bring it in. On arrival the centre quickly realised the gibbon had been a pet because of some of the odd behaviours the gibbon started exhibiting, such as pretending to cry using hand gestures to ask for food and ‘smiling’. Seeing the gibbons so up close, it is incredibly saddening to think of the awful ways they are treated. They have hands and feet, with nails and unique prints, just like us. Being so alike to humans makes it difficult to understand how people can view them as disposable or as a commodity. The keepers are currently trying to rehabilitate the baby gibbon and are working hard to stop these behaviours, as ‘smiling’ in the wild is seen as an aggressive behaviour. One of the keepers is also trying to teach the gibbon to replicate a territorial signal, which will be essential in the wild. Sadly if the keepers cannot rehabilitate the gibbon successfully, it will prevent release.
Feeding baby Macaque Monkeys
Our final stop was to the baby macaque monkeys, where we were able to sit with handfuls of food and feed them. Bear decided he didn’t want to go into the enclosure, so one of the guides offered to wait with him outside of the enclosure so myself, Mr. C and our own little Monkey could take part. The guide kept Bear entertained by sweeping the entrance of the enclosure together and made sure Bear stayed in our eyesight the entire time. We had so much fun feeding the baby macaques and learning about how they are currently establishing their hierarchy.
Learning more about Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre
Having spent most of the day learning about so many of the centre’s animals that are unable to be released I was curious to learn more about their rehabilitation rates before we set off back to the city. Interestingly the centre has rehabilitated and released 80% of the animals that have found their way to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.
As well as the aim of rehabilitation and release, the centre is also passionate about educating local people about conservation. This is such an important part of conservation because it is important to tackle the cause of why centres like this are needed in the first place.
The wildlife centre doesn’t have the same funding as western zoos meaning the enclosures are very basic and are not anywhere close to the same level as those seen in western zoos. It is also a very vast space that would be somewhat difficult to navigate and underwhelming if trying to visit independently, so I would highly recommend booking a tour. Although the tour itself is quite expensive, our trip to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre has been one of the most amazing parts of our time in Cambodia and one of the highlights of our trip around South East Asia so far. It is definitely something we would do again in a heartbeat. The money raised from the tours goes directly back to the animals, helping the centre to continuously improve and develop over time.
If you are looking to do something a bit different or conservation focused while in Phnom Penh, definitely look into doing a tour at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. The tour includes ‘behind the scenes’ stops, a great lunch, a local pick up and drop off in the city, as well knowledgeable guides. It is a really eye opening place to visit and well worth the money. You don’t have to physically visit the centre to support the amazing work they do, you can also sponsor an animal or donate money via their website.