Teuk Chhou Zoo in southern Cambodia is a cruel hell for most of the animals kept there, where not even endangered species are spared from brazen neglect. Yet under the terms of a proposed swap deal with a zoo in Japan, two extinction-threatened white tigers could soon be calling it home.
Sat six miles north of the sleepy riverside city of Kampot, Teuk Chhou is one of two private zoos owned by tycoon Nhim Vanda, an elected ruling party official and four-star general who counts strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen as a personal friend.
A visit to the zoo is an affronting experience. The initial surprise at the trash skirting the crocodile pond is quickly eclipsed by the realization the crocs have it far better than most.
Throughout the 1.8 million sq. ft. site, tiny rusted cages line paths crossing expansive, unused lawns. Inside those cages, disheveled exotic birds sit forlornly, waiting to see if the eyes gawking at them will be joined by a hand dropping food through the bars.
While zoo employees say the animals are fed once a day, the reliance on guests to make up the shortfall with fruit and processed snacks sold by casual vendors is made obvious by the clamoring of the animals whenever you approach a cage.
"Want some of these?" a vendor asked, holding up sugared fried cornballs in a foil bag. "Monkeys like them."
Those same packets lay beside split open water bottles on the grimy concrete floor of a nearby gibbon cage — bottles that visitors have thrown in because the water bowl has run dry.
Feather plucking is a classic sign of stress among birds. Photo by Charles Parkinson
When VICE News visited in late August, the only enclosure actively staffed was the elephant paddock — built three years ago by elephant conservation NGO Ears Asia, which also funds the upkeep of the zoo's two Asian elephants, Kiri and Seila.
"More than $300 is spent on the elephants' food every month and I feed them on cane, banana, papaya, and grass twice a day," said elephant keeper Mr. Rom, whose wages are paid by Ears Asia.
"The elephants are the most visited animals at the zoo, along with the tigers and lions," he said.
Elsewhere, one of the only other encounters with a staff member came at the beginning of a dirt road where the big cat enclosures are found.
"Tiger!" yelled a man in a hammock, rising from his slumber to point towards a large cage 30 feet away, before crashing back down.
At the enclosure, no barriers prevent guests pushing extremities though the bars, though the tigers appear well-fed and have a sizeable area with plenty of foliage to prowl.
Everywhere else, the pacing, bar biting, and self-harming that characterizes deep distress among animals in unsuitable surroundings is clear, while some creatures visibly struggle with injuries.
"The animals' self-destructive behaviors are clear cries for help," said Nina Jackel, director of campaigns at animal rights NGO Last Chance For Animals, after seeing video and photographic evidence compiled by VICE News.
A black-necked stork with a broken wing. Photo by Charles Parkinson
A sun bear bites the bars of its litter strewn cage while another seeks food. Photo by Charles Parkinson
According to Jackel, while years of captivity would prevent many of the animals being released, better alternatives exist, such as sanctuaries.
Meanwhile, zoo owner Vanda maintains a blasé attitude about the suffering he perpetuates. "Many people become crazy or stressed, so do animals," he told VICE News. "No animals die at my zoo."
That statement remains hard to verify, with no veterinarians employed by the zoo, and Cambodia-based conservationist Nick Marx refuting Vanda's claims that he visits regularly to care for the animals.
People familiar with dealings at Teuk Chhou speak of an overwhelming turnover of animals, with Vanda apparently capable of skirting laws that make the purchase of wild animals illegal.
"I can buy from Ratanakkiri or Mondulkiri," Vanda said, referring to two provinces characterized by expansive forests. "If I buy from abroad, I must ask permission from the prime minister. But within Cambodia it's a free market."
Amid the talk of buying new animals, he cries poverty when asked why those he already has are hungry and living in deplorable conditions.
"I don't have any money," Vanda said, sitting at the site of a luxury resort complex he is currently laying the groundwork for. "I do not even have money to buy food for them, so how can I make the cages bigger?"
Yet Vanda insists he will personally fund the care of the white tigers and zebra he plans to bring in from Hirakawa Zoo in southern Japan, including $120 per day on meat for the tigers. "There is no problem for the zebras because they eat grass," he said.
In their place, he intends to send the only animals he does not pay for the care of — elephants Kiri and Seila.
It's a plan that horrifies Ears Asia, who feel they should at least be consulted on any move after years of support and tens of thousands of dollars, while they say such a journey would be traumatic for the animals.
"When we first saw them they were emaciated," said Fiona Hardie, a supporter of Ears Asia who has made sizeable donations towards the group's work.
"One expert told us recently they appear to have put on about 600 kilos (1,300 lbs.) between them since we started looking after them. That is an incredible amount of weight," she said.
Kiri and Seila. Photo by Charles Parkinson.
Instead of the proposed swap, Ears Asia has secured an offer of places for the elephants at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Siem Riep province, which has a "no hooks, no chains" policy and rehabilitates elephants for release back into the wild.
"We would love to have them," said Lek Chailert, who manages the facility. "We have plenty of space for them and eventually they could be integrated with the elephants we already have," she said.
To push for their transfer to the sanctuary, Hardie has set up a Free Kiri and Seila campaign, including a petition to be presented to the Cambodian prime minister.
But Vanda remains steadfast that the animals should go to Japan, believing the trade would enhance bilateral relations, while agriculture ministry spokesman Eang Sophalleth told VICE News that Hun Sen has already agreed to the deal.
On the Japanese side, little is being said publicly, with Hirakawa Zoo director Masamichi Ono not responding to emailed questions. General manager Nobuhiro Yamamoto suggested to one Cambodian newspaper, however, that the Japanese zoo may only be interested in acquiring one of the elephants, for breeding purposes.
It's a prospect that deeply concerns animal welfare experts, such as Rob Laidlaw, executive director of NGO Zoocheck. With the pair in their 20s and having lived more than half of their lives together in captivity, Laidlaw fears a split could take a severe psychological toll.
"They are hyper-social animals and the two of them only have the company of each other," he said. "Breaking the two up would be highly stressful, extremely traumatic and cause both of them a great deal of suffering, probably for a very long time, especially if the one left [in Teuk Chhou] remains alone."
A tiny bird cage sits at the edge of an unused strip of grass. Photo by Charles Parkinson
Meanwhile, the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh has distanced itself from any accountability over the trade.
"This animal swap is planned based upon a mutual agreement between the Japanese zoo and the Cambodian zoo. Therefore, we are afraid that [we are] not in a position to make comments on the swap," said embassy Counselor Naoaki Kamoshida.
That approach has come in for heavy criticism, with Georgina Allen, director of projects and development at Wild Welfare NGO, calling for the relevant authorities in Japan to take responsibility.
"Trade cannot go un-regulated, and the Japanese government alongside the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums should play a significant role in monitoring what animals are being exported and imported into the country," she said.
"A highly developed and sophisticated country such as Japan should be setting an example to its neighbors," Allen added.
The Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums could not be reached for comment.
But Ears Asia backer Hardie said that, beyond welfare concerns, the prospect of splitting Kiri and Seila up for the sake of a breeding program is simply illogical.
"This whole arrangement just doesn't make any sense," she said. "They are hardly prime specimens."
Phak Seangly contributed to this report.
Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn