By: Gregory McCann

Phnom Tamao, located about 25 km outside of Phnom Penh, is no ordinary “zoo.” In fact, it’s not a zoo at all. Run by the NGOs Wildlife Alliance and Free the Bears, as well as the Cambodian government, this 2,600-hectare area feels more like a forest with semi-natural enclosures to separate animals that would normally tear one another to shreds.

But Phnom Tamao isn’t just important as an inventory of tropical forest animals. As Asia’s forests shrink and wildlife interceptions by police increase, what is to happen to the region’s once-majestic fauna?

Outside of Luang Prabang, Laos, for example, a similar (if much smaller) enclosure for sun bears, Asiatic black bears, and Indochinese tigers is on display for visitors at the scenic Kuangsi Waterfalls, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. Where did these animals come from? Many were intercepted by poachers, just like the one at Cambodia’s Phnom Tamao, and some were rescued from illegal private zoos.

And these are the lucky the ones. The rest were stir-fried into oblivion for those with erectile dysfunction. Thailand has or had a facility called Tiger Temple Cave in Kanchanburi province, a place so mired in controversy it was shut down after dozens of frozen baby tigers were discovered in refrigerators. A man I know who works for a Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai said that Chinese tourists regularly inquire about buying “tiger parts.”

Things aren’t looking good for the region’s wildlife, but Phnom Tamao seems to the best of the best, and this is thanks to the efforts of Wildlife Alliance, led by Programs Director Nick Marx, CEO Suwanna Gauntlett, Science Director Thomas Gray, as well as Free the Bears and the Cambodian government. Local, knowledgeable guides are easy to find and are recommended as not only for your own education but to pour money back into the local community.

This was my second trip to Phnom Tamao and I was already enjoying this trip much more. Perhaps it was because I hired a driver to take me from Phnom Penh and I could go at my own pace, and I also picked up a more competent local guide on arrival. Some of it, like the animal encounters,was probably just luck. Our first stop, for instance, was my favorite animal, the clouded leopard. 

“Wow, you’re lucky today—he’s out!”

He got up off the ground where he was basking in the sun and leapt up onto platform composed of branches that might resemble where he would lay up in the wild during an afternoon nap. But he didn’t go to sleep. We stared at one another a while, and he emitted a kind of high-pitched squeal, nothing at all like I’d expect from the smallest of the big cats. I stood there for awhile studying him and talking to him, but I think he grew bored of my presence. Nonetheless, I was left enthralled.

 So it was time for one of my next favorites: leopard cats. As we approached the enclosure some small feline racing at about three times the speed of a chipmunk dashed across the ground and leapt up into the leafy canopy of a tree. My guide spent a few patient minutes locating it for me. But that particular cat didn’t matter so much, because lounging in another semi-natural twiggy perch was one of the prettiest creatures I’ve ever laid eyes on: a winking leopard cat, seemingly as interested in me as I was in her.

Another highlight were the serows, a goat-like antelope that I’ve camera-trapped many times in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park (in fact, my team and I had camera-trapped all of these species with the exception of the Indochinese tiger, now extinct in Cambodia, and the Indochinese leopard—close to extinction in Mondulkiri province). The serows –two adults and a juvenile, were eating carrots out of our hand until the alpha stump-tailed macaque took notice of our activities and drove us away, surely feeling that those carrots belonged to him.

I was somewhat disappointed to see the binturong—another of my favorite animals—acting very lackadaisical up on their perch, whereas on our previous visit there they were hanging down with their prehensile tales to eat whatever we had. The otters didn’t disappoint, gobbling up as many fish as we could feed them.

There were bears galore, both sun bear and Asiatic black bear. The fishing cat was hiding in its small cave, the dholes rarely come out to greet visitors (a real bummer for me, as this wild canine is another of my favorites). I wanted to know about Asian golden cats, but my guide told me that they had all been re-released into Cardamom Mountains. If true, that’s great news indeed. I received no definitive answer about marbled cats. I had seen tigers and elephants at Phnom Tamao before and I just didn’t feel like going over and gazing at them (though we do have some mesmerizing camera-trap images of Sumatran tiger from our camera traps in Indonesia). There is an elephant at Phnom Tamao with a prosthetic limb which it lost to a land mine. How some genius installed a prosthetic limb on an elephant blows my mind.

As I stated earlier, I’ve camera trapped many of these animals in Virachey National Park; to see them up close is something else. But the question remains: is this the future of “wildlife” in Cambodia and perhaps in other countries in Southeast Asia? Phnom Tamao may be as good as it gets. Dozens of sun bears live there and they can take on more. Furthermore, the animals in Phnom Tamao do not seem to suffer from the “repetitive syndrome” a sad situation in which confined zoo animals mindlessly walk in the same circles all day as if in a trance. By contrast, Phnom Tamao’s animals seem pretty happy.

The manic pileated gibbons is almost reason enough to pay a visit. The fight goes on, and there are high-ranking officials in the Cambodian government who want to see Cambodia’s natural heritage preserved. Now’s not the time to give up, even in a place like faraway Virachey National Park, which seems to have been forgotten. But luck can (and often does) always play a crucial role. I think that enough suitable habitat will survive into the future so that all non-poached wildlife are not marched into places like Phnom Tamao to live out the remainder of the years in enclosures.

What does it all mean? When you visit Cambodia (or Laos or Thailand or Vietnam) visit the national parks—give them the political capital they need to survive (good tourist numbers can and do embolden officials). And if a multi-day trek in the thick, rattans-strewn forests is not your thing, check out places like Phnom Tamao. You won’t be disappointed.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID, and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.  He has as conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra and you can help by making a small donation here.