A lion at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, Phnom Penh, Cambod

Cambodia Wildlife Experiences – Where to Enjoy Ethical Animal Encounters

Cambodia wildlife experiences include everything from spending time with rescued sun bears and moon bears at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre near Phnom Penh to volunteering at the Elephant Valley Project in the Mondulkiri jungle.

Cambodia wildlife experiences don’t get the attention they deserve. It’s difficult to compete with stupendous Angkor Wat and the splendid temples of Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap with its stylish boutique hotels and superb restaurants, not to mention the tranquil islands of southern Cambodia.

Yet Cambodia hosts an array of animal species and habitats that have been lost in other parts of Southeast Asia. Cambodia’s wildlife includes 212 mammal species, 176 reptile species (including 90 subspecies), 536 bird species, 435 marine fish species, and 850 freshwater fish species, mostly in the Tonlé Sap Lake (Great Lake) area, and new animal species are being discovered all the time.

Yet many of Cambodia’s species are also under threat and as responsible travel advocates we’d be remiss in not directing you to ethical animal tours that provide ways for you to give back to local communities while helping protect the country’s wildlife.

Cambodia’s wildlife experiences may have remained a secret until now but we want to change that because visiting, raising awareness of, donating to, and volunteering at wildlife sanctuaries are some of the ways in which we can all help to save endangered species from extinction.

Cambodia Wildlife Experiences – Where to Enjoy Ethical Animal Encounters in Cambodia

For the average tourist, Cambodian wildlife experiences means elephant rides in Angkor Park. Sadly, these remain one of the most popular activities, despite one of these beautiful animals dropping dead from being overworked in the midday heat two years ago. It’s a shame as there are numerous opportunities to watch elephants in the wild in Cambodia at elephant sanctuaries, that are far more rewarding than riding these handsome mammals on a seat that causes them pain.

The Kingdom of Wonder hosts some wonderful wildlife experiences, although it has to be noted that some Cambodian animals have been driven to extinction, such as the kouprey, and others are in perilously low numbers: wild tigers, wild water buffaloes, Eld’s deer, and hog deer. Cambodia has 16 endangered species, and two critically endangered species, including the wild Asian elephant, Germain’s silver langur, wild water buffalo, and the wild Siamese crocodile.

Fortunately the best Cambodia wildlife experiences are offered by non-profit NGOs that inject income and donations directly  Ethical animals encounters are possible with many of Cambodia’s mammals, bird life and reptiles, in nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and animal refuges that are deserving of your time. By doing these experiences, you’re not only enriching yourself, you’re supporting the animal organisations working to protect and save Cambodia’s vulnerable wildlife.

Here’s our guide to the best Cambodia wildlife experiences that you need to add to your itinerary:

Our Guide to the Best Cambodia Wildlife Experiences

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre

As you explore Angkor Archaeological Park you’ll see statues of regal lions, symbols of courage, strength and power, guarding the causeways and entrances to many Khmer Empire temples. Guardian lions protected the kings and were thought to ward off evil. Yet while tigers, panthers, leopards, and other wild cats are indigenous to Cambodia, lions are not native. The handsome fellow, above, like the other big cats at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, were rescued from illegal wildlife traffickers, including exotic pet traders. Yes, indeed, some people give these animals as pets.

The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is the most accessible and most convenient of Cambodia wildlife experiences that can be had. At just an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh, a tour of the animal refuge and sanctuary makes for a great day trip from Cambodia’s capital and is perfect if you’re on a short stopover on your way to Siem Reap. Operated by the Wildlife Alliance, the centre is home to over 1,200 animals, including sun and moon bears, elephants, leopards, lions, tigers, gibbons, macaques, deer, and more. A favourite of many visitors is Chhouk, a gentle rescued elephant with a prosthetic leg.

How to Experience Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre

The Wildlife Alliance runs a full day behind-the-scenes tour from Phnom Penh, which includes a market stop to buy fruit for the animals, hand feeding the elephants and rescued baby macaques, changing Chhouk’s prosthetic foot, visiting sections closed to the public, such as the private tigers dens and the nursery in the rehabilitation area where baby animals are cared for, a tour of the rest of the sanctuary to see other endangered animals, and a Cambodian-style lunch, followed by a rest in the hammocks – just as the locals do.

Free the Bears offers a full day Bear Care Tour, which also includes Phnom Penh pick up and drop off, an educational presentation on the bears and the organisation’s work, a tour of the bear sanctuary, hands-on time helping to prepare special treats and enrichment toys, for the bears, a local lunch and rest, followed by a tour to visit other animals at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, more hands-on time helping to hide food in the bear’s enclosures before watching them search for their lunch.

Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity

From Siem Reap there are more Cambodia wildlife experiences to be had and the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity offers one of the most educational. Located just over an hour’s drive by car from Siem Reap near the start of the hiking trail to Kbal Spean, the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) was the first organisation dedicated to nature conservation and rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing endangered wildlife back into the forests.

There are more than 500 animals from some 45 species at the sanctuary – most rescued from the illegal wildlife trade – including pangolins, palm civets, slow loris, gibbons, Indochinese silvered langur, tortoise and turtle species, and a range of birdlife, including various birds of prey, the sarus crane, wading birds, and threatened storks. They also run breeding programs for selected threatened and endangered species to save them from extinction.

Also vital are their education programmes for local schools and villages to engage them in conservation and empower them to offer community based tourism activities to generate non-forest based income. Families get paid and profits are injected into village funds to benefit the community.

How to Experience the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity

The ACCB offers 90-minute tours of the sanctuary in English from Monday to Saturday at 9am and 1pm. Guides explain the work of the centre and its efforts to conserve the species it has rescued and protects, and the stories of the animals. A minimum donation of US$3 per person is requested – more is welcome of course – 100% of which goes towards the centre operations and programmes. Private and group tours are available outside these hours upon request. Bookings must be made in advance by phone or email. You don’t need an Angkor pass to visit ACCB but you will need a Phnom Kulen Pass (which you need to buy from the office not far from the foot of the mountain) if you’re going to hike up to Kbal Spean and visit the archaeological sites of the so-called ‘lost city’ of Mahendraparvata.

Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve

Some of the best Cambodia wildlife experiences are the outstanding bird watching tours to the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve ran by the Siem Reap based Sam Veasna Centre. The Centre was founded in 2003, in memory of pioneering Cambodian naturalist and conservationist Sam Veasna. Veasna died tragically in 1999 of malaria at the age of 33 while he was surveying Cambodia’s northern plains for the now extinct Kouprey.

A non-profit NGO, the Sam Veasna Centre was set up to establish eco-tourism opportunities that provide alternative sustainable livelihoods for locals at sites prioritised for conservation. The local communities in return for employment sign land-use and no-hunting agreements. While the Sam Veasna Centre offers wildlife and birding tours all over the country, the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve tours are some of the most accessible Cambodia wildlife experiences.

The Prek Toal bird sanctuary is located in the 31,282-hectare Tonle Sap Biosphere at the northern end of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), not far from Siem Reap. The habitat consists of seasonally inundated freshwater swamp forest, short tree shrubs and scattered large trees, which provide an important nesting ground for large water birds, making it the single most important breeding ground for globally threatened large water birds in South-East Asia.

According to the Sam Veasna Centre, the reserve hosts seven species of water birds of global significance: the Spot billed Pelican, Milky Stork, Painted Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Greater Adjutant, Black headed Ibis, Oriental Darter, along with a globally significant population of Grey-headed Fish Eagles and the secretive Masked Finfoot, spotted by the Centre’s guides, who have recorded over 150 different species of birdlife.

How to Experience the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve

The Sam Veasna Centre offers day trips and overnight bird-watching tours to the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve with their outstanding English-speaking guides who also draw on locals to provide services. Pick up is at 5am and breakfast is en route so you arrive at the reserve around 8am. The tour includes a one-hour boat ride to Prek Toal Village, which is where lunch is offered, and an optional paddleboat tour of the floating village in the afternoon.

Stay overnight at the Environmental Research Station or a floating house home-stay and you can visit the core reserve for dawn when the birds are at their liveliest and the weather is more pleasant. The best time of year to visit is in the dry season between January and May when sightings of large flocks of storks, pelicans and cormorants are almost guaranteed. Sam Veasna Centre offers a wide range of birding tours and prices vary, so check the website for details.

Elephant Experiences in Mondulkiri Province

For many travellers, Cambodia wildlife experiences mean elephant experiences. There are numerous opportunities for elephant encounters in Mondulkiri Province near the sleepy provincial capital of Sen Monorom. These include the dreaded elephant rides, which we don’t support, as well as time to watch, bathe, walk, and swim with elephants. Be warned: elephant tourism has grown into a small but competitive industry here with visitors reporting tensions and resentment in Sen Monorom. Do your research first – there are plenty of links below – make your decision, and book in advance so you’re not swayed by gossip when you get to Sen Monorom.

The Elephant Valley Project

The Elephant Valley Project was launched in the Mondulkiri jungle in 2007 as a sanctuary for injured, abused and overworked elephants, where they can be rehabilitated into their natural habitat. A registered NGO established by the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment, co-founded by Chhaeul Plouk, who is responsible for mahouts and Bunong staff, and Jack Highwood, a British expat, the Elephant Valley Project offers three elephant rehabilitation programmes: a short term rest and recuperation programme, long-term compensation programme, and a retirement programme.

Essentially, elephant mahouts, whose livelihood came from elephant rides and the logging industry, are paid to retire the elephants at the Elephant Valley Project and are then hired to continue to care for the elephants and ensure they don’t escape into the wild, where they’re under threat from poachers. The programme provides employment and training to the local indigenous Bunong community and supports the community to protect their forest and natural resources, the habitat of the elephants.

While the main focus is the health and welfare of their elephants and conservation of their natural habitat, the Elephant Valley Project also works with the Forestry Department, with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society, to protect wild elephants throughout Mondulkiri. It’s estimated there are some 140 wild elephants in the Seima Protected Forest surrounding the Elephant Valley Project.

Visitor and volunteer fees and donations support sanctuary operations, local employees, protection of local land, and its various programmes, including province-wide veterinary care to elephants, maintenance of a database of all captive elephants and their conditions, social support programmes for the local Bunong people, including health care coverage (2,000 people were receiving support when I last checked), scholarship support for students, and funding for one-off projects, such as housing and boundary marking of sacred sites.

How to Experience the Elephant Valley Project

Widely considered to be Cambodia’s most ethical elephant sanctuary, there’s no riding, feeding, washing or swimming with elephants at the Elephant Valley Project. Visitors can book day trips which allow them to walk with the elephants and observe them at play in the jungle and river, quietly following the families of elephants on foot through the thick forest, guided by the mahouts. For those of you who want to experience more, there are overnight two-day stays, and three- and five-day stays offering more time to learn more about the pachyderms, the indigenous tribes that live in the area, and the conservation efforts underway.

Short- and long-term volunteers are also welcome and experiences must be booked in advance on their website. Note that while the Elephant Valley Project is the most expensive of the Mondulkiri elephant experiences, it’s widely considered by conservation experts to be the most outstanding, most ethical, and one of the most effectively functioning elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia. Of all the Cambodian wildlife experiences available time at the Elephant Valley Project becomes the most enriching for many.

The Mondulkiri Project

The Mondulkiri Project Elephant Sanctuary is ran by Cambodian local, Mr Tree, has an agreement with the indigenous elders of the Bunong tribe to rent an area of forest to protect it from logging and provide a home for rescued elephants. He also plans to start a breeding programme.

How to Experience the Mondulkiri Project Elephant Sanctuary

On the one-day Elephant Adventure Tour (US$50) and two-day Elephant Adventure and Jungle Trek Tour (US$75), participants walk with the elephants, swim with and bathe them, observe them in their natural habitat, and relax at the lodge, while learning about the local Bunong people.

Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary

An hour’s drive north of Siem Reap, the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, formerly the Kulen Promptep Sanctuary, is an animal and environmental conservation project located on one million acres of wildlife habitat straddling the provinces of Preah Vihear, Siem Reap and Odor Meanchey. The site is considered exceptional because it’s home to a large concentration of globally threatened species making it one of the most significant of Cambodian wildlife experiences.

Operating in partnership with Thai elephant whisperer Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert’s Chiang Mai based Save Elephant Foundation and the Cambodian government, the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary is the last refuge for thirty-six wildlife species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, including six species listed as critically endangered. These include the Giant and White-shouldered Ibises, whose global population is estimated at less than 500 individuals. The Sanctuary is one of their most important breeding sites.

Other highly threatened species at the Sanctuary include the tiger, Asian elephant, banteng, Eld’s deer, Greater adjutant, White-backed and Slender-billed vultures, Sarus crane, Siamese crocodile, and several turtle species. The Sanctuary’s projects, which focus on 25,000 acres, are aimed at protecting and restoring the forest through tree planting, plant and wildlife identification, seed collecting, trail-making, educational outreach, empowering and employing the local community, and combating illegal logging. The Sanctuary also uses grows its own fruit and vegetables to feed the animals as well as its own team members and volunteers. The Sanctuary is financed through an ethical eco-volunteer programme (see below) and private donations.

How to Experience the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary

You’ll need to volunteer. The Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, in partnership with Save Elephant Foundation, offers an ethical volunteer programme for ‘eco-volunteers’ who stay at the Sanctuary for anything from 1-8 weeks to help rehabilitate the severely de-forested landscape to provide a safe habitat for Cambodia’s Asian elephants. Volunteers might find themselves gardening, tree re-planting, collecting seeds, identifying plant and animal species, making trails, developing an on-site school, working with the local community to establish educational outreach programs for children, fence building and other minor construction, and – what many are really here to do – picking fruit to feed the elephants. The volunteer experience can be booked on Save Elephant Foundation’s Elephant Nature Park website, and prices start from US$400 per week including transport from Siem Reap, on-site accommodation, three vegetarian meals per day, and unlimited drinking water.

So what Cambodia wildlife experiences have you done? We’d love to get your recommendations in the comments below.


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