shih tzu23 February 2015
A growling leopard in its confined cage, pacing up and down in anger. Elephants hastily running to the front of their enclosure at the sight of tourists and potential food. Bird cages that show no resemblance to natural habitats. Two lethargic lions sitting behind bars, yet close enough to touch if you dared. These are some of the animals found at Teuk Chhou Zoo in the quaint town of Kampot, Cambodia.
Despite the good intention to create a joyful place where locals and tourists can get up close to the animals, the zoo is a sad reminder that there is a severe lack of funding. Overgrown grass surrounds an inoperative merry-go-round, giving the zoo a ghost-like feeling. Additionally, the animals have little space and appear to be either bored or stressed. In its prime, the zoo would have been the perfect place for Cambodian families to spend their Sunday afternoons and for tourists to see some of Cambodia’s native species. Now, it is a derelict attraction.
The zoo has caught the attention of many non-government organisations (NGOs) and wildlife activists for its poor conditions and underfed animals. In 2011, the Phnom Penh Post reported on “The Zoo of Horrors”, sparking public attention and interest. Consequently, the owner of the zoo became open to outside help and funding.
In 2012, the Elephant Asia Rescue Survival Foundation (EARS) assisted with the care of the zoo’s two elephants, Kiri and Seila. The foundation built a new enclosure for the pair and ensures that they have adequate food and medical care. Unlike many other elephants in the region, Kiri and Seila are not forced to work or wear chains – instead they roam freely in their enclosure.
Another NGO, Wildlife Alliance, launched its project Footprints in 2012, which intended to develop the zoo into a wildlife sanctuary. Footprints provided the zoo with the baseline costs of $6,000-$7,000 per month for over a year. The zoo was making progress, with the Phnom Penh Post reporting that the zoo was “fighting back from [the] brink”.
Although external funding can help in the short term, it does not necessarily lead to sustainable change. In 2013, the zoo’s main supporter, Wildlife Alliance, discontinued funding after a disagreement with the zoo. The headlines soon changed to “Kampot Zoo Back in Trouble” and today, the hungry tigers, leopards and lions still remain.
Another concern is the care of the zoo’s two elephants, as there is a discrepancy with EARS over the adequate treatment of the pair. EARS believes that the elephants should be living in a more natural forest habitat. However, there are now plans to exchange the elephants for two white tigers and two zebras with a zoo in Japan. New elephants would be purchased as a replacement. Without adequate funds to care for the existing animals, there is concern over how the new animals will be cared for sufficiently. In protest, EARS has created a petition to free Kiri and Seila. The petition states that the transfer of the elephants is inappropriate due to cold climate, welfare issues, and stress through overseas transportation. The foundation asks that Kiri and Seila be moved to a Wildlife Sanctuary in Siem Reap instead, where they can stay in their home country and live as free animals.
These issues beg the question of how the international community can help a privately owned zoo. The Western notion of the ‘ideal zoo’ is often very different to an Eastern perspective, where animal rights are not always given the same attention or priority. This is especially the case in a country like Cambodia where a quarter of the population still lives below the poverty line. Cambodians do not have access to the same luxuries that we often take for granted in Western countries, like healthcare, education and job security. Additionally, the zoo does not receive any funding from the government and so does not enjoy the same benefits as many other zoos located around the world. It’s easy to argue that all animals deserve to have their rights upheld, but when it’s a question of money, things are not so simple. International intervention may be needed but it is not always easily implemented.
At Teuk Chhou Zoo there is a wide array of animals for locals and tourists to see. As such, there is a huge opportunity to create a thriving zoo that can generate sufficient funds. With the right marketing and a solid partnership between the owner and NGOs, the zoo could one day be restored to its former glory.
You can sign EARS’ petition ‘FREE KIRI AND SEILA’ and help keep the elephants in Cambodia at change.org.