To newspaper readers and television viewers around the world, she is now known as “Jungle Woman,” “Wild Woman” or “Animal Girl.”
Wild-eyed, wild-haired, and preferring meat over rice, many reports have presented a mysterious “feral” woman who emerged Jan 13 from the Ratanakkiri province forests as walking a fine line between human and beast.
“Pitiful grunts and squeals of anguish come from the wild creature caught in the jungle of Cambodia,” began a Saturday story in British tabloid The Sun.
In a article that appeared to mix fiction with fantasy, The Sun claimed that the woman has suffered “two decades among creatures in the jungle and crocodile-infested swamps of Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri province.”
It also described her as being covered in sores and mud, with matted hair that reaches down to her legs.
The Sun dubbed the woman “Mowgli Girl” in reference to Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 novel The Jungle Book, which tells the tale of a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle.
Sources have given conflicting accounts of the woman’s condition, though when reporters with The Cambodia Daily first visited her in O’Yadaw district last week, the woman appeared simply weary and silent, though generally composed as she sat among the local family that claim her as their long-lost daughter.
As the media whirlwind around the woman gathered strength, those taking care of her asked for journalists to show restraint, saying that the constant attention was causing her distress. Human rights workers recommended that she be taken to hospital.
Hector Rifa, a Spanish psychologist who has worked for several years in Ratanakkiri, was traveling to meet with the woman in O’Yadaw district Tuesday, said Kek Galabru, founder of local rights group Licadho.
Despite the intense international media attention, what little is known about the woman appears increasingly confused.
Villagers in O’Yadaw district say they believe the woman is Rocham Phoeung, who disappeared in 1989 at the age of 10 with her six-year-old sister while herding cattle.
Most news reports say that the woman communicates with hand signals and grunts. Some reports, however, claim that she is able to say the words “mother,” “father,” and “stomachache.”
Rocham Phoeung’s age at the time of her disappearance has alternately been given as eight and 10. Some reports say that she was herding cattle with her cousin, not her six-year-old sister, when she vanished. Some identify the ethnic minority woman as Phnong, while others state that she is Jarai.
The woman is said to have been identified by her professed family from a scar on her wrist in some reports, in others by a scar across her back. A thick scar on her left wrist has led to speculation about whether she might have been bound up. Some said she was found by loggers, but now her father says he found her himself. Also, reports have her with short hair when discovered.
In recent days, some reports have begun to question how a woman, if she had survived in the jungle for nearly two decades, could still have short hair, trimmed fingernails and smooth hands and feet.
The assumption that she survived 18 years in the wilderness “is almost certainly nonsense,” Britain’s The Guardian said.
There is one thing that can be said with certainty about the story.
While the tale has exploded in the international press, it has attracted much less attention in Khmer-language papers in Phnom Penh.
“International readers will see this as an unusual story and it will grab [their attention],” said media trainer Moeun Chhean Nariddh.
“In Cambodia, there are so many similar sad stories,” he added. “[It is] not considered a serious issue.”