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Wildlife Alliance has many programs throughout Cambodia, for both animal welfare and wildlife and community conservation. The Wildlife Rescue Station is a combination of all these, starting with protecting an area of forest in the Cardamom mountains near the village of Chi Phat.
The local villagers used the forest to survive, as many have and still do throughout Cambodia, including farming and unfortunately, poaching. As one of last areas of viable forest in which wildlife can flourish in Cambodia, WA have worked with the community to provide alternative livelihoods for the families in Chi Phat, including eco-tourism and guarding the forest, instead of poaching from it.
A 20-minute bike ride up the mountain is the Wildlife Release Station (WRS), where rescued wildlife is rehabilitated for release back to the forest.
The Problem of Release
An assortment of animals come and go from the WRS, from pangolins to parakeets. While it is the ultimate goal of every welfare charity, wildlife release is a very complicated task. Every species needs handling differently, and every individual needs to be assessed as its own case.
It can be frustrating for supporters to see rescued animals in captivity instead of the wild, but it is even more frustrating for the charities themselves. No one wants these animals to have to be captive but the simple reality is that in almost all cases, to release an animal without careful preparation and research sometimes for years would mean a very quick death.
Imagine an animal raised by hand as an illegal exotic pet. They have no ability to hunt or forage for food and would starve in short time. If the animal was trained to feed itself (a huge effort and long-term process), land needs to be found big enough to support it. Is it native there? To introduce a new species could wreak havoc in the local ecosystem.
If the animal was fresh from the wild, it would most likely be injured and require care. Perhaps it has permanent injury caused by humans, or perhaps it becomes dependant during recovery. Perhaps its mother was killed and was too young to survive on its own.
Or perhaps it is none of these things, and would be a candidate for immediate release. But where? Many captured animals are found due to their habitats being destroyed. If suitable land could be found, are there other of its species that would fight it for territory? If not, is it safe from humans? Are people poaching in the area, laying snares or traps, or is the animal so used to humans that it would approach them?
For these reasons and many more, animal release is a hard problem. While many would argue to let 'nature' take its course and not rescue and rehabilitate injured animals, welfare organisations believe that if humans caused the harm we also have a responsibility to put it right.
Flying the Nest
In general, birds can be one of the easiest animals to release, and many species have flown the 'nest' of the WRS. Birds will fly free and forage naturally. Larger birds such as hornbills might be valuable to hunters, while smaller birds are hard to catch or kill. These individuals should be safe; poachers usually target nests for eggs rather than bother to hunt birds.
Supplementary food is easily provided in case it's needed, leading to a 'semi-wild' first generation, while the next generation will grow up in the forest to become fully wild. Three released mynah birds are a good example of this, enjoying forest as far as the eye can see, but still returning for extra food in the dry season, and to chat with the WA keepers who care for other animals being prepped for release.
Other animals are not so easy to release safely. There are many rescued macaques cared for by WA at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, a government facility near Phnom Penh supported by wildlife NGOs. As animals are successfully released, more animals can be bought to the WRS for their chance at freedom.
Lonely is a female macaque who was rescued as a baby. Babies are often not adopted by troupes of monkeys, so Lonely had to be hand-raised by human keepers. Sadly, because she didn't learn her species' usual behaviours, Lonely finds it hard to make monkey friends.
Integration with others of their kind is a prerequisite of many species for them to survive in the wild. While a troupe of macaques from Phnom Tamao have been successfully released,, Lonely sadly didn't integrate very well with them and didn't take to the wild alongside them. On her own, Lonely wouldn't survive in the wild, so WA are now trying again with a more friendly monkey named Somnang. They seem to be getting along better for the past few months, so fingers crossed for a second shot at freedom for Lonely.
Much harder to release are bears, not least for a lack of safe forest to release them. Bears roam a large territory and do it alone, meaning a large area is needed to support a bear population. Keeping such an area safe from poachers is not easy.
in 2011, WA released two female bears into the Cardamoms: Sloat and Sopheap. Rescued in 2008, the cubs had been cared for by Free the Bears at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, and were taken to the WRS to a one-hectare semi-wild enclosure. For months they were trained to be wild in this area, surviving with no human contact, and eventually they were released to the forest.
Unfortunately, two months after their release, they were both snared again. Bought back to the WRS, they had sustained wounds to their arms but thankfully due to the hard work of the WA vets, they did not lose their paws. While they survived the snare and the surgery, Sloat was sadly found dead in the enclosure soon after, possibly from stress.
I arrived at the enclosure which is essentially a large area of cordoned-off forest, with huge trees for climbing and thick undergrowth for hiding. Sopheap is still not scared of humans, and it wasn't long before she showed her face to find the food placed by the keepers.
But there is a new bear who now keeps Sopheap company. Tela is a young male, rescued with minimal human contact so is still very wild and very scared of humans. This makes him a potential candidate for release, and a poor subject for photos! It would be another day before I was able to find him.
I woke up early to join the keepers in providing the supplementary food for the bears. You can see the sunrise behind this sky-rail, created by the keepers. When the bears are being prepped for release they cannot have any human contact, so food is delivered via this rail system instead, a basket jostled along the track dispensing fruit across the enclosure.
I camp out in the bushes for a while waiting for Tela. It's impossible to see past the undergrowth, which is great for the bears, but it's a long wait before I am able to hear a rustle of leaves, and eventually spy a little paw through the foliage.
The black shape moved out off view, but eventually began up the trunk and walked across a huge branch. It was Tela, and it was exhilarating to see a bear in a huge tree, just as they should be. He moved further along the treetops to a big nest, where another head poked up from the leaves. Sopheap and Tela were nesting together, far from the busy forest floor.
There are many options for the future of these bears, but past experiences illustrate just how difficult releasing animals back to the wild can be. Unfortunately it's just not as simple as opening the door and letting them go.
Emptying the Cages
However hard it is, and however frustrating it may be for charities and supporters alike, we all have the same goal in mind. The most important and most talked-about animal during my visit were the binturongs who had arrived a few months before.
While I was there to take photos of rescued animals, even as a photographer this cage was my favourite; this cage was already empty.
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