On our third day in Phnom Penh we decided to do something really special.
The illegal wildlife trade in this part of the world is a big problem, for years animals have been hunted and used for Chinese medicine, killed for fur or sold as exotic pets and status symbols. This combined with the destruction of natural habitats has lead to the extinction and rapid decline of many species in the wild. Before our trip we had heard of elephant rides and close ups with animals in South East Asia, but we were keen to be careful about who we gave our money to.
The Phnom-Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre – A project ran by the Wildlife Alliance, seemed like the perfect cause to support.
Our day started with an early morning tuk tuk to our meeting point. Here we were greeted by our 3 guides and driver for the day. Our group was small; just 6 other people and we boarded our bus for the 35Km drive south from Phnom Penh.
En route we stopped at a small local market for the keepers to pick up fruit and vegetables for the animals, apparently the monkey’s favourite is jack fruit, but that was sold out, so it was cucumbers today instead. Along with bananas, peanuts, pineapples and longan fruits.
We arrived at the park at around 10am and our behind the scenes tour began.
Our first animal sighting was Lucky. Now 17 years old Lucky was brought to the park when she was just 6 months old. She had been abandoned by her parents who would have most likely have been killed and was about to be trafficked to a low quality zoo before the Wildlife Alliance rescued her. As a baby elephant she needed the companionship and support of a parent and soon fell in love with her keeper, who she still sees every day.
We got very close to Lucky as we walked with her on her morning stroll through the vast park, she made shrieks of excitement and knocked her trunk on the ground – which apparently meant she was happy to see us (or the treats she knew we had) . It was magical to be so close to such a massive gentle animal. We fed her bananas and peanuts and pineapple, lots of morning snacks. The keepers explained her story in more depth, including how she had last year survived a deadly illness which resulted in some of her ear being amputated. They also explained how to look for signs of mistreatment in elephants.
She was happy and relaxed and we were all mesmerised.
After lots of time with Lucky we went to see the other elephants that had been rescued and brought to the park.
We spent some time with a female elephant, who used to be free to roam like Lucky, but unfortunately now has to be in an enclosure as she was running around destroying food stalls, so for her safety she is better protected in her part of the park. We also met Chhouk who was rescued when found with his foot severely damaged by a snare trap. His story is pretty amazing as he has a custom made prosthetic to help him walk.
After the elephants, it was off to see the tigers! We went into their private enclosures, a place where only the keepers go. Two of the tigers had been rescued from an illegal breeder as cubs, as they were cross breeds they couldn’t be released back into to wild, so instead have spent their lives at Phnom Tamao… a third tiger was bred at the park.
After the tigers we then got up close to some playful otters. These had previously been kept as pets by fishermen, but were brought to Tamao to help give them a better life with the hope of release back into the wild. We watched them as they got their morning feed of live fish, they played with their catch throwing it up and down and chasing it through the water. The keeper explained their mischief for digging tunnels into different enclosures… and even though they are friendly and inquisitive, their teeth are very sharp.
After the otters, it was next door to see the leopards… a male and female both rescued from the illegal pet trade. The female was extremely attached to one of the keepers who she greeted like a domestic cat.
Next it was on to the bear enclosure which is managed by charity Free the Bears. The Moon bears were huge masses of black fur with a white ‘v’ shape on their chests, said to symbol the crescent moon, hence their name.
Finally before lunch we stopped off to visit a female gibbon Preya – who took a particular shine to Ryan. She was rescued from an abusive Cambodian man who kept her as a pet – and now has an extreme dislike to any man who looks Cambodian. She was a beautiful animal with such human eyes. The centre has a good success rate of releasing paired gibbons back into the wild… at sights like Angkor Wat, unfortunately they have tried to pair her with other male gibbons but she hasn’t taken too well to that, it seems she is just too traumatised. We gave her a relaxing back rub and foot rub, which was so nice you could see that she really loved it and didn’t want us to leave.
After a break for lunch, a fresh coconut and lots of Cambodian dishes, we had some time to relax in a hammock before continuing our tour of the park.
Our next visit was to the baby enclosure, where we met some tiny baby monkeys that had been separated from their parents. Their cages have large teddies within them which they treat like their mothers. We also saw a Jungle Cow, Iguana, a deer and another beautiful baby Gibbon. After hearing the stories of how these animals had come to the park we headed into the baby monkey enclosure.
As soon as we walked in we were bombarded by the little monkeys, who were very keen to get their hands on the fruit we brought with us. This was a really great way to end our day, up close to some of these funny and inquisitive creatures. Once they are old enough the babies will be released into the park to enjoy 6000 acres of trees and woodland.
Our drive back from the park into Phnom Penh was full of reflection on how amazing the day had been. Our guides were great and we definitely recommend supporting the Wildlife Alliance.
That evening we went for Mexican food at Cocina Cartel in Phnom Penh – a great day.