Nowhere is wildlife tourism a more hotly contested topic than in Southeast Asia. After a few bad experiences myself, common sense told me to steer well clear of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center – a massive animal park located south of Phnom Penh in Takeo province.
So I was a little taken aback when a knowledgeable friend suggested that I visit.
No place that’s in the business of keeping wild animals in captivity can ever be perfect, but I was honestly impressed by the animal habitats at Phnom Tamao and the quality of care the residents appear to receive. The park is free from much of the plastic waste that clots other outdoor attractions in Cambodia, dispelling another of my fears that Phnom Tamao would be heavily polluted. Since we visited on a Sunday, we shared the centre with dozens of Cambodian families and school groups – not just foreign tourists like I was expecting. The fact that most signage is in Khmer gave me the impression that Phnom Tamao is primarily run by and for Cambodians. Another big tick in my book.
Having now spent a full day at the centre myself, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Phnom Tamao as a day trip from Phnom Penh.
Phnom Tamao is managed by the Royal Cambodian Government with assistance from a handful of international NGOs, including Wildlife Alliance and Australian charity Free the Bears. The property is huge and the distance between different habitats is vast, giving the park a open-range zoo kind of feel (although cages are still the norm). The Phnom Tamao visitors get to see is just a tiny portion of the property; most of the 6,000 acres of land is ranger-patrolled forest, where many animals are released after a period of rehabilitation.
All up, Phnom Tamao is home to more than 1,000 individual animals, not including the troupes of monkeys that roam free across the grounds. Many species are endemic to Cambodia, including the Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger, pileated gibbon and hairy-nosed otter, making this a great place to get acquainted with the country’s native fauna. Animals are occasionally brought in from international zoos to complete mating pairs, and as a result, some of the younger residents were born at the park through breeding programs. But the majority of the animals arrive at Phnom Tamao after being rescued from Cambodia’s illegal wildlife trade.
While it’s possible to visit Phnom Tamao independently, we decided to go with Free the Bears as part of their Bear Care Tour, which gives guests a unique behind-the-scenes look at one vital aspect of the centre’s work. Travelling around the park with a guide also meant that we could hear some of the animals’ backstories.
Free the Bears currently cares for more than 100 sun and moon bears at Phnom Tamao, one of a dozen sanctuaries spread across South and Southeast Asia. They’re not in the business of breeding, so save for one happy accident in the shape of a very cute cub, all the bears at Phnom Tamao were rescued from illegal poaching, wildlife trafficking or the exotic pet trade. Some were handed over to Free the Bears while others were confiscated from traffickers attempting to smuggle them across the border.
Bear bile farms are one enemy of Free the Bears, and while no such operation exists in Cambodia, bears are regularly captured and shipped off to Laos or Vietnam for this sinister purpose. Many of the bears at Phnom Tamao are missing a paw or an entire limb as a result of being snared by poachers in the forests of Koh Kong or Mondulkiri. At least five bears are rescued in Cambodia each year.
Hefty the sun bear was brought to Phnom Tamao in 2013. His story is a little different to his peers…
Before Free the Bears, Hefty was kept as a pet by the owner of a garment factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Presumably, he’d been there since he was a small cub. His owner had some issues with gambling, and one night at the roulette table, he lost it all. As down-and-out factory owners often do, he packed up and left town, leaving the factory closed, his employees out of work, and Hefty (who was then called Khai Mea Neah) behind.
The following day, staff turned up for work to find their factory had closed without notice. When this happens (and it happens quite frequently), garment workers sometimes break in to the factory and take the sewing machines and valuable equipment to sell. Any profit they can make is like an informal severance package for desperate workers with few labour rights.
The police were eventually called to the factory where they found Hefty locked in a steel cage in the owner’s old office. That’s when he was brought to Phnom Tamao. Most of the bears here are supported by an international sponsor who donates money for their food and Free the Bears’ other running costs. Hefty’s Australian sponsor chose his name because of his size at the time – plump from a sugary diet and sedentary lifestyle. He was promptly put on a tough-love health regime. With room to move around, he has lost weight and can now keep up with his friends.
Then there’s Chhouk, the elephant with a prosthetic front foot. Chhouk sustained his injury when he was caught in a snare trap in Mondulkiri province. Still a baby, he was lucky to escape with his life. Chhouk defied the poachers, was rescued and brought to the park for rehabilitation. Unable to walk properly, staff lobbied to have a prosthetic foot made for Chhouk and eventually one company agreed to create a prototype. To accommodate his rapidly growing body, a new foot is made for him every few months. On the day we visited, Chhouk was road testing his latest prosthetic.
Big cats can also fall victim to the exotic pet trade, and in Cambodia, high-ranking officials have been known to receive a clouded leopard or a lion as a gift. This was one lioness’ fate; she was eventually turned in to Phnom Tamao when she grew too big to take care of. A mate was brought in for her and a successful breeding partnership ensued. Now, Phnom Tamao is home to a family of four lions and two lionesses.
Free the bears Bear Care Tour
Touring Phnom Tamao Wildlife Center and hearing these colourful, often heartbreaking stories is only a small part of the Bear Care experience. We spent most of the day inside Free the Bears’ HQ and kitchen, helping prepare enrichment snacks and meals for the residents. The Bear Care Tour is a wonderful way to experience Phnom Tamao and support Free the Bears in the process.