Sunday, March 21, 2010

Zoo time

Steve Goodman is better known as a photographer about town, Phnom Penh that is, but he was also the man who supplied the pictures for the recent To Myanmar With Love guidebook that came out a couple of months ago. Steve gave me a few essays for my own To Cambodia With Love and this one on Phnom Tamao Zoo is one that didn't actually make the final cut. However, its certainly worth posting here. You can see more of Steve's photographic work here.

Phnom Tamao Zoo - by Steve Goodman
Sometimes Phnom Penh seems like a zoo, but I was surprised to learn that Phnom Penh really has a zoo and that its primary mission is to rescue and rehabilitate animals in Cambodia that are illegally trapped, hunted, traded or otherwise abused, neglected or endangered.

The sprawling Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center is located on about 80 hectares in the middle of a 2,500 hectare protected wildlife region about 40km south of Phnom Penh. On the weekends and especially on national holidays the Zoo becomes quite crowded with Cambodian families coming from many miles around to hike, picnic and enjoy the fascinating variety of wildlife.

The 6km road leading to the zoo at the top of Tamao Mountain used to be quite treacherous on a motorcycle and every time I visit there I see riders and their passengers take a spill. On the roadside, at least on weekends and holidays, are dozens of elderly beggars who toss water on the road to keep the dust down, though it barely helps.

About 500 animals from more than seventy species make the zoo their home. The bear complex is the largest, but you can also see tigers, leopards, lions, elephants, various kinds of monkeys, snakes, crocodile, turtles, deer, otters, lizards, peacock, heron, parrots and a wide variety of other birds. The zoo is spread out over a vast expanse so we would motorcycle to one area, park and walk around and then motorcycle to the next area, and so on.

Every bit as good as the animal watching is the people watching. Cambodian families and groups of friends taking a break from their everyday life to enjoy nature are relaxed and friendly. Just being there with them makes for a wonderful experience, add to that the colourful and often amusing animal population and it puts the whole experience well worth the effort.

I first heard about the Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center from a friend who works for an NGO that helps to save and rehabilitate bear cubs. He told me that there is a substantial demand from Chinese and Korean tourists who consider bear cub paws to be a rare delicacy. They are willing to pay $300 to $500 per serving and, not surprisingly, at those prices there are Cambodians who are willing to break the law to satisfy this unusual demand, posing just one of many threats affecting Cambodia’s wildlife.

Bear cubs captured in the wild, as well as those raised clandestinely in captivity, are kept in very small cages that allow virtually no movement. When an “order” is received a small hole is cut in the cage, just big enough to allow one paw to stick out. Only after the paw is cooked (while still attached to the cub) is it then severed from the bear and the wound seared closed since the bear cub still has three more healthy paws that could potentially generate $1,000 or more. Such cruelty is truly shocking, but fortunately WildAid, Free the Bears and other organizations work to prevent terrible practices like this as well as to save and protect many other animals from all manner of threat.


Directions: Take National Highway 2 south from Phnom Penh and look for the sign for the zoo. Take a right turn and then travel about 6km up the side road. Tel 012-842-271. Hours: Open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm.Entrance Fee: $5.

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