Charles Parkinson and Phak Seangly
The Phnom Penh Post, Wed, 2 September 2015
Hirakawa Zoo in southern Japan has confirmed it plans to send endangered white tigers to Teuk Chhou Zoo in Kampot province, despite deplorable conditions and evidence of psychological damage among the animals at the Cambodian zoo.
A senior official from the Japanese zoo stated that the exchange, while not finalised, will likely be completed in the first half of 2016, with two endangered white tigers and two zebras going to Teuk Chhou.
“If everything goes well, the swap will be made possibly after spring,” they said. In return, the zoo in Kagoshima prefecture will receive two Asian elephants currently housed at Teuk Chhou.
The source confirmed a zoo representative and a Kagoshima city government official visited Cambodia and met Teuk Chhou owner Nhim Vanda to discuss the trade.
Kagoshima city government directed all requests for comment to Hirakawa Zoo, which did not comment on the conditions witnessed at Teuk Chhou.
Kaori Sakamoto, of Japanese NGO Voice for Zoo Animals, painted a bleak picture of the elephant enclosure at the Hirakawa Zoo, where Teuk Chhou’s elephants, Kiri and Seila, would likely be kept.
“They will be forced to live in a physically and behaviourally impoverished exhibit in which they will suffer,” she said.
Sakamoto also questioned the motives behind the exchange.
“There is no legitimate conservation value to this proposed trade. For both zoos, it is entirely to obtain new animals for public display and amusement,” she said.
During a visit to Teuk Chhou on Sunday, the Post witnessed underweight animals rushing to the bars of dilapidated and undersized cages in the hope of being fed. None of the caged animals were seen to have clean drinking water and many lacked adequate shelter from the rain.
A worker at the zoo confirmed that the animals are fed once per day, but active supervision was only evident at the elephant enclosure, which is staffed and funded by elephant conservation NGO Ears Asia.
In the absence of oversight, guests are able to stand as close to cages as they want and can be seen taunting animals, with one visitor witnessed throwing stones at a python over a prolonged period.
Numerous visibly injured animals were seen, including a black-necked stork with a broken wing and an endangered lesser adjutant unable to properly stand on one of its feet.
Abnormal behaviour among the animals was also evident, with a lone golden jackal continuously pacing up and down along the same 4-metre stretch of its tiny enclosure and most of the zoo’s ostriches having plucked their rears bald.
According to Andrew Tyler, director of animal rights NGO Animal Aid, such behaviour is indicative of psychological damage induced by stress and boredom – often referred to as “zoochosis”.
“All the signs are that the unfortunate jackal and the self-harming ostriches are ekeing out lives that are utterly miserable and wretched,” he said, after viewing video and photo evidence gathered by the Post.
“The establishment responsible, in our view, should be closed down,” he said.
But during an interview on Sunday, zoo owner Nhim Vanda dismissed the suggestion anything was wrong with the animals, claiming that the jackal simply “likes exercise”.
“By nature [it] is the kind of animal that does not stay still, except when it sleeps. If it stays still, it is sick,” he said.
Vanda claimed he would pay for the care of the new animals out of his own pocket, including $120 per day on meat for the white tigers.
Yet, when asked why the animals already at the zoo lived in such small cages, he said he lacked the funds to make improvements.
“I acknowledge that the animals are not taken care of well,” he said. “If you want bigger cages, give me money. Do not blame me.”
He also said that if Ears Asia – which has launched a campaign to prevent the trade of Kiri and Seila – withdrew from the zoo, he would not have the funds to pay for keepers for his planned replacement elephants.
When confronted with the injuries, Vanda claimed Wildlife Alliance director Nick Marx visited the zoo on a regular basis to provide veterinary care.
But Marx said yesterday he has not been to the zoo since 2011.
“I did previously offer to help out on an individual basis, but that came to an end years ago,” he said.
But despite the protests, Vanda insisted the exchange will go ahead and has Prime Minister Hun Sen’s blessing, while also pointing to an apparent underlying motive for the trade.
“Who is bigger than the prime minister?” he said. “There are no such animals in our country, and we can bring them in to breed.”