Saturday, April 16, 2011

Elephants Suffering

Prey Veng Zoo - 2003
Back in 2003 I visited a small, little known zoo in central Prey Veng province. Most of the cages were empty and the few remaining animals were in terrible shape. At the time I was told that the zoo was slowly shutting down and that most of the animals had been transferred to a new zoo from the same owner, located outside of Kampot town near the Teuk Chhou rapids - a popular destination for local tourists. So a couple of months later I went to check out the new zoo in Kampot – the Toek Chhou Zoo.

At the time the Toek Chhou Zoo didn't look all that bad, at least as Southeast Asian zoos go. By western standards the animals were kept in abysmal little enclosures and treated more as amusements than living creatures, but that is something of the norm at zoos in Southeast Asia. That aside, the animals appeared to be healthy and properly fed, especially as compared to some other zoos in the region. But since then, things have changed considerably. Like the old Prey Veng zoo, the Toek Chhou Zoo has fallen into disrepair and many of the animals are horribly neglected.

The dismal state of the zoo has been well-reported of late. I first read of it on Khmer440 back in early March 2011. Shortly thereafter the Phnom Penh Post picked up the story, doing an in-depth report on the miserable state of the zoo and its charges:

The zoo of horrors
27 March 2011, The Phnom Penh Post
Kampot province’s Teuk Chhou zoo is a place where no one seems to care about how animals are treated, a place where animals are kept in cramped, roofless shelters and rely largely on food from tourists to survive…

It has no roofed-in shelters as the wet season approaches or even any semblance of a natural habitat for the animals as witnessed during a visit over the weekend.

Orangutans and baboons swing restlessly back and forth between the steel bars of their three-metre square enclosures, while eagles and other birds of prey scarcely have enough space to spread their wings, let alone fly – that is if they are one of the lucky few whose wings aren’t badly damaged.

The state of the zoo’s two elephants is heartbreaking, as their emaciated necks stretch through the thick bars of their enclosure in an attempt to eat blades of grass, seemingly one of their few sources of nourishment.

The skeletal bodies of the two animals are hard to ignore and the two have become aggressive, lashing out at visitors who step near their enclosure…

Moved by the report in the Post, particularly by the sad state of the large mammals, many have stepped forward with offers of possible assistance, both financial and expert, as reported in a follow-up by the Post on April 5:

Zoo owner open to NGO help
05 April 2011, The Phnom Penh Post

Last month, The Post gave an in-depth view into the deplorable conditions at the zoo, which is unable, due to an apparent shortage of funding, to provide adequate food and water for the animals.

Offers of help from NGOs, private companies and individuals have since been made.

Nick Marx, wildlife rescue director at the NGO Wildlife Alliance, said yesterday: “I will do whatever I can to ensure the safety of the animals, and to work with Nhim Vanda and any other supporters that want to help financially better the lives of animals at Teuk Chhou zoo.

“Wildlife Alliance has wanted to help for a long time and I’m really happy [to] do whatever is required.”

The zoo has also caught the attention of a member of the Royal Family, Princess Norodom Sita, who was shocked at the treatment of the animals but hopes to raise support for a solution in the near future...

In light of these reports, and with the memory of the sorry conditions of the old Prey Veng zoo still in mind, I decided to go see for myself what was up in Kampot. I visited to the Toek Chhou Zoo a couple of days ago, spending several hours there. It was Khmer New Year and they were doing a moderately brisk business. It wasn’t crowded but there were dozens of people touring the zoo at the same time I was there – all Cambodians, no foreigners that I saw.

I walked the entire place and found it to be a pretty mixed bag. The grounds were quite run down. The kid's rides were in a state of complete disrepair, but most of the statues that adorn the park were bright and freshly painted. Some zoo animals were fairing better than others. Some looked fed, others much less so. The birds appeared fairly well miserable in their tiny cages, as did the great apes and monkeys. The big cats appeared gaunt but still active. The elephants in particular were a truly pitiful sight.

Female and male Asian elephants at Toek Chhou Zoo, Kampot

Water pit
There is a pair of them there - Asian elephants, a male and female. Both are in very rough shape, withered for lack of food and seemingly unhealthy. Bones protruded under their loose skin, especially along their shoulders, neck and back. They seemed lethargic and sad wandering about their barren pen. There was no food or anything to graze in the enclosure, only dirt, dead leaves and feces. A slime covered pool seemed to be the only water source and a small roofed area just big enough to fit the two was their only possible escape from the sun. It was a harsh, empty, desert-like environment for animals meant to live in a green and shaded tropical jungle. To be honest I’ve seen elephants treated worse in Thailand, but that did nothing to reduce the shock of seeing these magnificent animals reduced to such a deplorable state. I am not a zoologist or vet and am not qualified to assess the health of zoo animals, but it seemed fairly well obvious to my untrained eye that these animals weren’t just unhappy and deprived but were and are suffering.

Elephant pen
Apparently I was not alone in my inexpert assessment. As I stood there, a Khmer family wander up to the other side of the pen. They did not look happy with what they saw. The father shook his head in disapproval and I distinctly heard him say “ooooh, skoam, skoam” ('thin, thin.') He quickly led his wife and frowning children away from the sad sight of these anguished animals.

Female elephant stretching for grass to eat
The female elephant continually picked at the well picked over greenery outside the pen, but to no avail. All of the grass was gone, already eaten, leaving only inedible plants and thistle. Disturbed, I went to a nearby drink vendor and asked if there was anywhere I might buy some food for the elephants. First she said "no" but then offered to sell me some of the stock of sugarcane she uses to make drinks for the tourists. I bought about half of it, a full armload of cane which I lugged back to the elephant pen. Apparently I wasn’t the first to do this. When the elephants saw me coming with food they rushed to meet me. I passed them a stalk at a time, trying to distribute it evenly between the two, but the larger, stronger male aggressively stole the female's food. So I gave him a few stalks to keep him busy then lured the other to a different part of the pen to feed her separately. They both ate eagerly.

I hope that was the right thing to do - that it was the right kind of food, etc.

As mentioned above, since the first Post article about the zoo, there has been an outpouring of concern and offers of help from individuals, companies and NGOs, and according to the April 5 Post article (see above,) the zoo owner seems willing to accept assistance. As this is a privately owned zoo in an out-of-the-way place and the help would have to be very long term, I can't imagine how exactly that is going to work. But whatever is to be done, these animals are suffering right now, as I write, and help cannot come too soon for the elephants and the other animals at the zoo.

Female elephant scrounging for grass to eat


  1. Great post but so sad. How can people behave like this?

  2. COMPLETELY off topic, but remember the "Shouting Restaurant" in Prey Veng? Worth a short piece, no?

  3. Loved the shouting restaurant. Haven't been there in years. Is it still around?

  4. id really like to help these elephants! :'(