The pangolin had been rampaging in her plastic box for the third night in a row and Isabell Stich decided, "It's time for Ping to move on." Ping, who arrived as a baby and has since grown considerably in size, with an urge for activity to match, had been living in Stich's and Kai-Olaf Krüger's guestroom for almost three months. But now she has her own territory - and is hardly ever seen. She likes spending her days sleeping in burrows that she never tires of digging again and again.
Veterinarian Stich and biologist Kruger, both from Germany, run the Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) in Phnom Kulen National Park, about 45 kilometers north of Siem Reap. The two animal-lovers, who have been in Cambodia for four and a half years, live in remote Kulen at the conservation center. As a house mate, Ping was not the most pleasant company. The pangolin, a native to Cambodia and most of Southeast Asia, is a nocturnal animal. And it stinks. Hence the transfer to an enclosure specially built for this exceptional, lizard-like mammal, did not cause the couple too much heartache.
Zarbasz, the last foster child Stich and Kruger shared their house with, was more like a family member. A pileated gibbon, now 21 months old, Zarbasz was raised by bottle and stayed with his foster parents for a year and a half. A few weeks ago this dark-faced lesser ape with a fluffy coat moved out to share a cage with AJ, a three-year-old female gibbon who, like Zarbasz, was raised by humans. Their relationship is characterized by wariness, sometimes hostility. "Apes raised by humans don't usually consider other apes as of their own kind", Kruger explains.
Zarbasz was handed over to the conservation center voluntarily by his former owner, an expatriate living in Phnom Penh, whereas AJ came from a restaurant in Siem Reap, where monkeys and cats of prey are still frequently being kept for the entertainment of tourists - often in hair-raising conditions. "Little gibbons are often captured because they are so cute", says Stich. "Tourists can take pictures holding them in their arms. But most people don't know that the parents have to be killed to get the baby monkeys." Pileated gibbons live only in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and are listed as vulnerable in the red list of threatened species.
If an owner doesn't have a license for keeping wildlife, the animals can be confiscated. This is done by forestry officials or the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, which is managed by the NGO WildAid in partnership with the Cambodian Department of Forestry and Wildlife. This task force seizes about 5,000 live animals every year from restaurants, shops, markets and on national roads. Last year, according to WildAid data, 6,294 live animals were confiscated, as well as 2,183 dead and cooked animals and 1,237 kilograms of wildlife meat.
Most of the living wildlife is released immediately into its natural habitat, says WildAid director Suwanna Gauntlett. Sick animals or babies - like the pangolin Ping, which was only a few weeks old when confiscated from an illegal trader - are taken to one of the two shelters in Cambodia: the ACCB at Kulen, which focuses on smaller animals and currently holds about 100 of them. and the Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center in Kandal province, which has over 800 animals, including elephants, tigers and bears.
The ACCB, which includes a quarantine station, a small veterinarian practice, a breeding section, and an education center open to students in the area, sometimes receives animals that don't quite fit the center's requirements. The project's goal is the protection and breeding of threatened species in Cambodia as well as environmental education. It was initiated by the provincial government of Siem Reap and established in 2001 by the Allwetterzoo of Münster, Germany, and the German Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations.
Animals that aren't threatened with extinction are released into the wild as early as possible. The last one to leave the center was Shy, a leopard cat which, although not on the red list, was granted asylum at ACCB more than six months ago to protect him from trafficking, harmful husbandry and an early death, Krüger explains. Shy was only a cub when caught in the jungle and first had to learn how to hunt.
Morkeleb, on the other hand, a 2.3-meter-long, 20kg water-monitor lizard, will probably spend the rest of his life at the conservation center. Fishermen caught him in the Tonle Sap. He is not at risk and was "thrown out" promptly. But half a year later he was back, just skin and bones. Stich diagnosed that he had developed an eye cataract, which caused him problems when hunting.
The ACCB is also flush with turtles. It keeps several threatened species, from the 4kg giant Asian pond turtle, classified as vulnerable, down to the yellow-headed temple turtle, classified as endangered. More recently, 37 elongated tortoises - an equally endangered species - arrived. They had been confiscated by forestry administration officials in Svay Leu, east of Phnom Kulen. "These turtles are in the same red-list category as the tiger, but they are just not as popular," Stich says.
Cambodian wildlife is under threat from hunting and from habitat destruction. Stich and Kruger say they are watching with alarm the exploitation of the forest on their doorstep. When they started the project, woodland in Phnom Kulen National Park was almost inexhaustible, says Kruger. Now there are large gaps everywhere. "People settle, poach and clear the forest for rice fields. We hear chainsaws every day."
The project includes an educational component, funded by GTZ, the German Technical Cooperation agency, and aimed at giving a chance of survival to birds, monkeys, turtles and other species being bred at ACCB for release into the jungle. Kong Sith, a Cambodian teacher, gives lessons to villagers, as well as to forestry, environment, military and police officials, dealing with endangered species and ecological background. "What is the correlation between the climate, the forest and animals?" Sith says. "Why are trees good for us? These are questions I cover in my lessons. "The people don't know anything about that. They destroy the forest and kill the animals." Sith, 26, regards bans and prohibition as useless. "Environmental education is essential for Cambodia," he says.
Pangolins live in trees as well as in burrows in the forest and still exist in quite large numbers, but trade with Vietnam, Thailand and China continues, according to the ACCB. "The population will decline significantly in coming years," Stich says. WildAid director Gauntlett agrees. "They are getting rarer and rarer. The price has risen astronomically. They pay $45 a kilogram for pangolins that are mainly hunted for their meat," she says. Hence, the goal of the Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity is to build up a population that can be reintroduced into the wild and also be supplied to other zoos.
A big challenge, as Kruger affirms. "Most pangolins die during the first two weeks in captivity," he says. To his knowledge the ACCB is the only institution holding a pangolin, Manis javanica. "The record period for keeping a pangolin is 22 months," he says, "so, our 10 months are a success already." The biggest problem is diet. Adult pangolins, which can grow to 1.4 meters long and weigh up to 5kg, feed exclusively on live ants and termites. Termite collection can quickly become a problem and adaptation to a different diet is therefore crucial. Ping, who now weighs 3.4kg, gets a mixture of red ants, ground cat-food and boiled egg. The gardeners working at the ACCB collect the ants quite easily on the 27 hectare compound - for many zoos that would be a major obstacle.
Fifteen local staff work at the conservation center, and the plan is that in future it will be run entirely by Cambodians. But Kruger says there is still a long way to go before they have gained enough knowledge and experience to take over. But Stich and Kruger, who started in 2001 with nothing but a piece of land in the jungle, say they are not in a hurry. "We came here with the idea to stay either just half a year - or five to twenty years," Kruger says. For the time being, they plan to remain in the wilderness of Phnom Kulen that has become their home.