Phnom Ta Mao Zoological
By: Jon Bugge.Picture by:Jon Bugge ( September, 2002 Volume 2 No.9 )

The keeping of animals in zoos has been a common practise for centuries. It is only now, when our understanding of the balance of nature increases, that we are aware of the important role zoos can play in conservation. The word zoo is derived from the Greek word: "zoion", meaning animal, in Khmer the word zoo translates as: "suonsat." It is never going to be the first thing a visitor thinks about when coming to Cambodia - however they may be in for a pleasant surprise. Located in Tro Pang Sap village, Tro Pang Sap commune, Ba Ti district, Takeo province, it lies approximately 40 kilometres from Phnom Penh along National Route 2. One must turn right for a further five kilometres along a sandy track.
Upon entering the grounds the scale of the project becomes apparent. The area in which the zoo is located covers approximately 70 hectares. It is within the Phnom Tamao protected forest area of 2,500 hectares. Within this area, 1,200 hectares are set aside to plant trees. Phnom Ta Mao is by far the largest zoo in Cambodia and the influx of visitors testifies to this. Officially opened by Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen in 2000, although it had been running for some five years previously. There are at least five official zoos in the country; there are thought to be several more private zoos also operating.
Within the gardens are some viewpoints from rock outcrops, allowing one to comprehend the extent of the zoo. It also provides a birds eye view of the enclosures. The buildings and enclosures are sympathetically designed and blend into the environs. One of the largest enclosures is for the Sun and Asiatic Black bears. These docile animals are hunted for their gall bladder and their paws, both believed to have curative medicinal properties - an idea that has little, if any, scientific proof. It is through the dedicated work of organisations such as Free The Bears and Wild Aid that these animals are being rescued.

The zoo also boasts some of the kingdoms, and thus the regions, rarest animals. Pileated Gibbons have an enclosure and are always keen to show off their acrobatic skills. There are also Asiatic Tigers; these majestic animals have a spacious enclosure and will hopefully be the closest you ever get to a live (or dead) tiger. Siamese crocodiles and other rare and endangered species all have found a haven in the zoo.
As well as serving the role of a zoo, the centre also offers rescue facilities. Animals taken from poachers and the illegal wildlife trade are often brought to the zoo. Here they can, with a bit of luck (and sponsorship) have their own enclosure. With sponsors from Tiger Beer to Mobitel all getting in on the corporate responsibility act, many of the enclosures are well appointed and large.
The area of the zoo is large and it is a good idea to acquaint yourself with a map of the site. There is one on display in the grounds and information can be found at the office and museum. There are several different areas and signage can be slightly confusing.
One of the areas contains some fascinating bird life. These include more common fowl and some stunning peacocks, whose iridescent plumage is a feast for the eye. Hornbills and vultures add to the collection. The zoo even boasts a lioness. Quite extraordinary seeing as, contrary to Angkorian sculpture, lions have never been indigenous to this part of the world. The animal was seized by officials at Pochentong International Airport, whilst trying to be smuggled as a dog. At present she lives alone. There are a variety of native animals including flying foxes, otters and wild dogs.
One can really see the tangible benefits of zoos such as Tamao. They play a crucial role in preserving endangered species. A secondary, but equally important, role is that of education. More often than not it is ignorance that poses the greatest threat to the flora and fauna of the kingdom. People do not know the basic tenets of conservation. The zoo provides a glimpse of the wildlife in a controlled environment. It is hoped that it will also play a role in educating a new generation of Khmers about the importance of their wildlife.

Whilst the zoo maybe basic in comparison with others in the region, it is a start and an important one at that. The idea is that through preserving animals they will be able to attract visitors and thus create income. The important lesson that conservation can be translated into cash is one that has to be learnt.
With more than sixty staff the zoo provides a source of employment as well. The estimated cost of running the zoo - primarily the food for the amount of animals, let alone the salaries involved - is more than 120 dollars a day. On a financial basis this is counteracted by the amount of visitors. In a normal week the zoo may receive between 500 - 600 visitors. For Cambodians it costs 1000 riel (25 US cents) and for foreigners the cost is two dollars. Simple maths show that even if all of the visitors in a week were Khmer, the income generated would be approximately 125 - 150 dollars a week - only enough to feed the animals for one day. Thus the role of funding is crucial in the survival and feasibility of this zoo. On public holidays the number of visitors in a week can reach as high as 7- 8,000 people. To encourage more visitors and to help increase the cash flow, the Department of Forestry is planning the construction of a trail to connect the zoo and Tonle Bati - when completed this nature trail will be approximately six kilometres long.
Whilst there are those who will claim that zoos are tantamount to prisons, there are others who see them as important tools in the conservation struggle. For some species they are the only chance of survival. Whatever your opinion, they play a crucial, albeit controversial role. In Cambodia there is a fine example, which with some due attention and development, could become another of the kingdom’s great attractions.

It is important to remember certain rules when visiting a zoo. For those who have never been to a zoo they should read the following to help alleviate the stress that captive animals can endure.
-Do not feed the animals. They live in captivity and are fed regularly. This could affect their diet and thus their health.
- Do not make excessive noise near the enclosures.
This can cause alarm distress and result in injurious actions by the animals.
- Do not litter near the enclosure - in fact do not litter at all! Animals, especially the primates, can get hold of this rubbish and could end up hurting themselves.
- Do not touch the animals, even stroking, this endangers you - they are wild animals - and their behavior in captivity maybe aggressive.
- Remember these animals would have - and should be - in the wild.
If you were a prisoner you would not want to be taunted and annoyed by visiting animals.
- Use common sense when dealing with such situations. If in doubt, don't do it.