Regular readers will know all about my constant struggle to feed my kids’ enthusiasm for animals without supporting cruel or unethical organizations. Last year I wrote about a rather dowdy zoo in Laos that was being transformed into a wildlife rescue center. In Cambodia we came across another such place, in a promising sign that a significant shift is taking place in views on animal welfare in the region.
The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is sometimes known as Phnom Penh Zoo, even though it’s not in Phnom Penh and it’s not a zoo. We hired a car through our hotel to take us there, which cost us USD 60; more expensive than most, but we believed that booking through the hotel would give us some recourse if there was a problem (wrongly, as a future post will recount.)
As with the Lao WRC, the smaller and less charismatic animals are clustered round the entrance. Deer wander freely around, as do wild macaques. We were pursued by a woman trying to sell us fruit to feed the monkeys, to whom I couldn’t explain that I think feeding wild monkeys is a terrible idea, particularly after our encounters with the aggressive macaques of Malaysia, one of which attacked my son. In the end she started calling the monkeys over to us, and I had to say “No!” quite forcefully to get her to leave us alone.
There’s a wide variety of animals, from monkeys and lorises to lizards and crocodiles. Only a few showed signs of distress, but many obviously associated humans with food, such as the smooth-coated otters which came running and tumbling towards us when they saw us pass. This is why these animals cannot be released into the wild; they may be unable to feed themselves, and would be easy prey for poachers.
We happily spent a couple of hours wandering around this section, then went for lunch Khmer style: on a carpet on a raised platform. We lounged in hammocks drinking cooling coconut milk while our food was prepared, then feasted on fresh grilled fish and what may well have been the best chicken I have ever eaten.
After lunch we got back in the car, and I thought our driver was taking us to the next part of the sprawling site. We were nearly at the exit before we realized, and had to tell him we hadn’t seen the tiger or the elephants yet. He was a little reluctant to turn back, perhaps because we’d given him the leftover chicken and it was a warm day.
However, had we left then, we would have missed two unforgettable experiences. One was hearing the tiger’s roar ringing round the trees, an utterly awe-inspiring sound which touched on primal terrors. It is a beautiful beast, though clearly unhappy as it paced the perimeter of its enclosure.
The other came after we had found the elephants, fed them sugar cane, and wandered off in search of our driver. By chance we came across a keeper leading one of the elephants, a female called Lucky, on her daily walk around the center. We stroked her, fed her, and blew up her trunk, which we were assured is the elephant equivalent of a kiss. It’s always risky to ascribe human emotions to animals, but I was certain that she was loving all the attention.
If you’re visiting Phnom Penh with kids, then Phnom Tamao should unquestionably be on your itinerary. Children can have close encounters with extraordinary wildlife, and you can be confident that your money is going to support the ongoing battle against the poachers and smugglers who threaten these animals’ very existence.
Photos: Andrew Killeen