Parliamentarian and Zoo Owner Nhim Vanda Says His Critics Have Him Wrong
teuk chhou waterfall, Kampot province -Parliamentarian Nhim Vanda may be the best friend Cambodia’s endangered animals ever had.
Or he may be their worst enemy.
Critics say Nhim Vanda’s eagerness to buy endangered animals guarantees that poachers will continue to break the law. Nhim Vanda, however, insists that he never hires poachers to bring back rare animals—he just rescues those that have already been captured.
Traveling by car along National Route 3 on the way to his private zoo in Kampot, Nhim Vanda brushes all that aside. What he cares about today is buying piles of fruit and slabs of meat.
His ultimate destination is the 23-hectare Teuk Chhou Waterfall Crop Garden and Zoo, one of two private zoos owned and maintained by the powerful CPP parliamentarian.
But first, he must stop by a farm at the foot of the Daun Soy mountains about 25 km east of the Kampot zoo, where he is raising cattle to feed meat-eating animals like lions and tigers.
The mountainous farm is about nine times bigger than the Teuk Chhou zoo, and some day he may turn it into a zoo as well. But for now, 50 cattle are grazing in the field, with another 250 on order.
After a brief stop at the farm, Nhim Vanda continues to the Teuk Chhou zoo near the waterfall of the same name, a popular spot where people flock for weekend picnics, bathing and swimming in the clear, flowing water of the rock-rich valley.
The zoo, located about 10 km from the provincial town of Kampot, has about 250 animals and birds from 94 species and 3,000 plants from 12 varieties.
The healthy-looking animals include five tigers, two lions, 10 other smaller cats, two baby elephants and 14 yellow crocodiles. Nhim Vanda knows most of them by name.
“I love farming and wildlife so much,” he says. He believes his zoos and animal husbandry efforts help preserve the dwindling riches of Cambodia’s wildlife for the younger generation.
“These animals are as clever as human beings, just with different shapes and colors,” he said, pointing to the zoo’s two lions he bought from Russia.
Nhim Vanda has become a lightning rod in the argument over how best to protect Cambodia’s endangered animals.
His supporters say he is an animal lover, the only powerful political figure in the country willing to donate his time and money to wildlife conservation.
They say that in a world where poaching goes virtually unchecked by the proper authorities, Nhim Vanda buys endangered animals from profit-hungry poachers and restaurateurs, who have illegally purchased them to make dishes like bear-paw soup, which can sell for as much as $100 per bowl.
But to Cambodian wildlife officials and foreign conservationists, Nhim Vanda’s practice of buying wildlife and stocking his private zoos is illegal and only encourages poachers to break more laws.
Colin Poole, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, says buying endangered animals guarantees that they will continue to be hunted. “It would be great if Nhim Vanda would stop buying animals from the forest,” he said.
Nhim Vanda dismissed the criticisms.
“If I don’t buy these vulnerable animals, they can disappear from our country so the younger generation will never see them,” he said. “I have to pay some money to keep some of them alive for Cambodian children to see.”
He said he only buys animals that have already been trapped, and would never pay poachers to hunt for endangered animals. And, he says, conservation law enforcement is so poor that the only way to keep such animals safe is to put them in zoos—if they are released back into the wild, they will just be poached again.
As critical as Nhim Vanda is of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Wildlife Protection Office, they have had some high-profile successes lately.
Two of the best-known are O’Rang and Lucky, the popular baby elephants now residing at the state-owned Phnom Tamao Zoo.
Recently, WPO officials and foreign conservationists struck close to home when they launched a sting operation in Phnom Penh to rescue two tigers.
The tigers were found in a truck belonging to Nhim Vanda.
He says the WPO did a bad job, and that Roth Sovannara, the chief of the logging and wildlife crackdown unit, went after him as an easy target rather than trekking out to the border districts where animals are being poached.
Even here in Phnom Penh, he says, wildlife officials would rather focus on him than on the restaurants that illegally trade in endangered species. He also says some officials are corrupt, and confiscate animals from poachers or traffickers only to sell them themselves.
“Can [Roth] Sovannara endure sleeping in the forest and along the border to stop [poachers]?” he asks. “You are strong, you go to crack down there.”
Repeated attempts to reach Roth Sovannara were unsuccessful.
Conservationists say there are three main routes by which poachers illegally export wildlife: Poipet, Koh Kong and Mondolkiri. The exports are virtually uncontrolled due to weak and corrupt law enforcement.
International demand continues to rise while those who are supposed to stop the smuggling are often under-trained and underpaid—and sometimes involved in the trafficking.
Meanwhile, conservationists say, Cambodia is being picked clean of animal species prized as food, medicine, trophies or pets.
In recent years, China has become a massive consumer of wildlife from Southeast Asia, and one of Cambodia’s biggest markets.
Nhim Vanda says if wildlife protection officials don’t get better at their jobs soon, “Our animals will be gone.”
Ty Sokhun, director of the agricultural ministry’s forestry department, says his officials have made a serious effort to stop both illegal logging and animal poaching, but that there is more jungle along the border than they can easily control.
Nhim Vanda is pushing for the hasty passage of long-stalled wildlife legislation to keep the situation from getting worse.
Wildlife in Cambodia cannot be effectively conserved until a clear law is passed. But Nhim Vanda says even a good law won’t help if the enforcers remain corrupt.
He believes the new law should allow Cambodians to trade in local species, as long as they are not endangered, and to import rare foreign animals.
He hopes, for example, to buy a chimpanzee and a kangaroo for his zoos. But while he has the chimp on order from Africa, he has discovered Australia zealously protects its wildlife and the kangaroo may not be so easy to come by.
Both Australia and Cambodia have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) that bans the import or export of certain endangered animals, including the kangaroo.
“I am not going against any international law, but we Cambodians should be able to imports species that people here never get to see,” he said. “The new law should not be so strict on domestic trade of some animals. We should allow people the right to raise and breed animals to get more.”
Instead of focusing only on a strict wildlife law, he said, the government must give poachers alternative ways to make a living. “Giving people vocational training and income-generating jobs will improve conservation,” he said.
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Nhim Vanda, who lost his left arm fighting the Lon Nol regime, says some of his critics might try mirroring his conservationist bent.
“I’m setting myself up as an example for everyone to see, and consider and learn,” he says.
He suggests government officials think more about donating some of their mental, physical and financial resources to the next generation.
Though he’s not very forthcoming on how he made his money, Nhim Vanda says he has spent at least $1 million developing his two zoos in Kampot and Prey Veng province, and that he’s losing money on the projects.
He says he spends about $100 a day on food for the animals and workers’ salaries, or about $3000 dollars per month, while ticket sales bring in only about $25 per day.
But he says it’s worth it.
“I love the animals like I love my children and family,” he says. “Every single day, I spend much more money on the animals than I do on my family. My family has only $2.50 for food per day, but the animals get $100.”
He says he bought only about 20 percent of the 250 animals that live in the Teuk Chhou zoo. About 60 percent were donated by Cambodians, and 20 percent by foreigners. For example, the female tiger was a gift from the governor of Banteay Meanchey, and the male tiger came from Svay Rieng’s governor.
He says he also gets donations of cash from foreign animal lovers. At his Bayab Zoo in Prey Veng province, for example, two separate groups of foreign visitors recently donated $5,000 each.
Nhim Vanda also has some high-profile support for his zoos. Early last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen praised his efforts, suggesting the Ministry of Agriculture should help support it with a budget allocation.
The money hasn’t shown up yet, but Nhim Vanda said he doesn’t much care. “So far, I can support the zoo on my own.”
Another fan is King Norodom Sihanouk.
“I would like to express my deep thanks and appreciation for your great patriotic act in building these two zoos to conserve wildlife and to keep them for my children and countrymen,” the King wrote him last November.
Nhim Vanda was thrilled. “Who is bigger than the King? Even the King supports my effort,” he says.
More than money, he says, the zoos need technical assistance from international wildlife conservation organizations. He says he and his workers just don’t know enough about caring for their animals, although they have learned what they can from books and visits to zoos in Thailand, the US, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam, and South Korea.
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Nhim Vanda’s first zoo, built in 1995 in his parliamentary district in Prey Veng province, is home to 120 animals and birds from 40 species, and 12,000 plants, including 75 palm trees, five mango and three bamboo.
It has huge fish-raising ponds from which fish are released to the rice fields of thousands of families who live near the zoo. Eventually, he plans to transfer half of the animals to the newer Kampot zoo, which was built in 1999.
The Kampot zoo offers a 12-room guest house, where about 200 Japanese and other foreign tourists and researchers, including representatives of the World Wildlife Fund, have stayed. He plans soon to install a zoological library at the zoo so students and visitors can study local and global wildlife, and farming issues.
At the zoos or elsewhere, Nhim Vanda does not hesitate to promote his own interests.
Although farmers near the Kampot zoo have grown durian for generations, he plans pilot plantings of local and foreign fruit plants, hoping to convince local farmers to buy his exotic seeds and expand their plantings.
Visitors to the zoos can also expect to hear Nhim Vanda’s praises broadcast over loudspeakers wherever they go, from his dynamic personality to his achievements on a variety of fronts. He also produced a television program on his zoos, which was recently aired by TVK.
Nor is he shy about trumpeting his efforts on behalf of his constituents. In his parliamentary district of Prey Veng and in Kampot province, he has built 50 school buildings, two hospitals and 170 kilometers of rural roads.
He has a reputation in the National Assembly as the only CPP lawmaker willing to speak out against weak or corrupt members of his own party. Even opposition lawmakers praised him for frank speaking on painful issues while other CPP members sit silently.
And he is a man of unexpected interests.
Only Hun Sen is better-known for writing karaoke songs. While some 400 of the prime minister’s compositions have been played on radio and TV, Nhim Vanda’s tally is 90 and rising.
Many of his songs are about wildlife.
Last year, Nhim Vanda was appointed First Vice President of the National Committee for Disaster Management, a position equivalent to a senior ministership. He earned international praise for his competence during an earlier stint with the committee.
He has held a number of important government positions, from commerce minister in 1993 to deputy minister of planning, finance and defense.
But none of it means as much to him as the natural world.
“I would love to link myself to nature rather than the political life,” he says. “I am worried about the zoo. If I die, it will be hard to find anyone who feels the love and responsibility to the animals to run my zoos.
“I have not seen any Cambodians who have the same heart for animals as I do. Many people love animals, but they don’t love to operate zoos like I do. And it’s not easy.”
Despite the criticisms, despite the hype and bluster, Nhim Vanda’s efforts are striking a chord with many.
A group of 20 students from the National School of Administration recently visited the Kampot Zoo, and said they were amazed and impressed.
“Nhim Vanda’s efforts to conserve wildlife, and the planting he is doing here, are very laudable,” said Huot Hak, one of the students.
“I want other leaders, and the younger generation, to do what Vanda has done.”
If they follow his example, Huot Hak said, “we can help prevent the decline of wildlife and [promote] better forestry.”
Many Kampot residents and high school students also expressed their thanks to Nhim Vanda for building the zoo, which lets them see species they never saw before.
“Even though we live in Kampot, near many mountains and jungle, we never see live animals like in Ta (Grandpa) Nhim Vanda’s zoo,” says Bun Thy, 18, who attends high school about one kilometer from the zoo.
“We just saw the bones, skin and other parts of animals in the market stalls.”