If the thought of zoos in developing countries conjures up horror stories of majestic creatures in inhumane settings, the Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center will put the mind to rest.
The Phnom Tamao Zoo was originally set up as a preserve and rescue center for rare and endangered local wildlife. These days, the zoo primarily provides care and rehabilitation for victims of the wildlife trade -- animals that have been rescued from traffickers, abusive owners, restaurant cages, poacher's traps.
Around 95 percent of the animals recovered by Wildaid are released within days, say Wildaid officials. However, some are too sick, or orphaned at such a young age, that the possibility of a successful return to the wild is minimal. These animals make up the zoo's permanent residents.
Phnom Tamao is by far the largest zoo in Cambodia, and the influx of visitors testifies to this. It was officially opened by Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2000, although it had been operating for about five years previous to that. It is the only official wildlife sanctuary in the country.
Located about 40 kilometers south of Phnom Penh, Phnom Tamao features more than 800 animals in a forested, 2,500-hectare plot. The zoo covers some 100 square hectares, with the remaining land reserved for future extension and development.
Species housed at the zoo include tigers, leopards, lions and several species of exotic birds. At least two dozen of the species are endangered.
On arrival, visitors are first greeted with a small pond adorned with storks and pelicans. Surrounding the water are captive, but playful, monkeys and two smaller enclosures with crocodiles.
Once inside, the center includes several ever-improving natural wildlife enclosures, an animal hospital, a walk-through enclosure (where you can interact with a variety of different animals), and a wildlife museum.
With such relaxed settings, visitors to Phnom Tamao experience a connection with the animals seldom found in zoos in developed countries. At Phnom Tamao, even the fiercest of predators is separated from visitors by chain link and a waist-high barrier.
The best way to get to Phnom Tamao is by moto (about $7 for the day) or tuk-tuk (roughly $10). It is a large property to walk through, so if you do hire a moto for the day they can drive you around. There are buses that leave from Central Market that stop at the turn off for Phnom Tamao, but you will need to take a moto from there. The entrance fee is $2. And remember, it can get hot out there, even in the rainy season, so don't forget your sunscreen.
For more information on Phnom Tamao and Wildaid see www.cambodianwildliferescue.org or call 012 842 271.