When Eva Mignault visited Teuk Chhou Zoo in Kampot province last year, she was not expecting a pleasant day out at the tourist attraction.
The Equadorian had read the negative reviews online about the zoo—owned by senior government official Nhim Vanda—and she wanted to see for herself. But what she saw was worse than expected.
“The heart breaking horrors I saw when I was in the Kampot Zoo made me start a petition,” she said by email.
Later, her friend paid a visit to another of Mr. Vanda’s privately owned zoos, Bayap Zoo in Prey Veng province, and videoed appalling conditions with emaciated animals housed in filthy, tiny cages.
“I started campaigning to close down two zoos,” she said. The online petition now has more than 7,000 signatures.
Ms. Mignault also wrote a letter to Keo Omaliss, vice director of wildlife protection at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Administration.
“I would like to ask why is a senior government official permitted to own 2 zoos in Cambodia where animals are hungry and dying, and living in such small cages?” her letter said.
Mr. Omaliss wrote back to Ms. Mignault in February.
“In Kampot, the animals look fine, but some cages are still small. However, at the zoo in Prey Veng, [the] welfare of animals is concerning and cages are generally small,” he said, adding that the owner would be asked to make improvements.
On Friday, Mr. Omaliss said he visited the zoos in January because he was worried about tourists taking away negative perceptions of the country after visiting them.
“We want visitors to be happy and eco-tourism is a big part of the government’s tourism strategy,” he said, noting that the fact they were privately owned complicated the process.
“We need to negotiate with the owner and we have not yet been able to meet him,” Mr. Omaliss said.
Mr. Vanda’s love of animals was well known, he added, so he was sure he would want to ensure their health. But taking proper care of animals in captivity is expensive, he added.
“Normally, zoos would be supported by the Forestry Administration but we have a limited budget,” Mr. Omaliss said, adding that NGOs could possibly lend a hand if Mr. Vanda agreed.
But NGOs have already tried to help Mr. Vanda, vice president of the National Committee for Disaster Management.
In 2011, Rory and Melita Hunter launched a project with Wildlife Alliance at Teuk Chhou to provide better care for the animals.
They founded an NGO, Footprints, with plans to develop the zoo as a wildlife sanctuary and education center. But in 2013, they pulled out amid disagreements with the owner.
Nick Marx, the director of Wildlife Alliance’s wildlife rescue and care program, stayed on after Footprints’ exit. But he too eventually left.
“We did try to help in Kampot a few years ago. After Rory left, I stayed on to help my friend Louise Robinson, who took over care of the elephants at the zoo and I was paying out of my own pocket,” he said.
But it soon became clear that Mr. Vanda was using the money he was saving from operating costs at Teuk Chhou to restock Bayop Zoo—destroyed by floods in 2011—with captured animals.
“One of the conditions of our involvement [in Teuk Chhou] was that animals wouldn’t come and go, but with captured animals brought in that’s just what happened,” Mr. Marx said.
“This was totally against my own ethics. When it became clear, I could no longer continue,” he said. “No one doubts that [Mr. Vanda] loves animals…but his concept of the conservation is different to ours.”
Mr. Marx said he remains open to returning to Kampot. But on one condition—that Prey Veng zoo is shut down.
“Kampot is bad. But Prey Veng is awful and we couldn’t do anything while it exists.”
Speaking by telephone Friday, Mr. Vanda disputed claims that his animals were not well looked after and said he still loved animals, but no longer had funds to run the zoos.
“I have spent so much money on food to feed [the animals]…and I really want to sell [them],” he said. “But the law does not allow anyone to buy them.”