VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 22 April) – Walking in the Lao Zoo at Keun village on the outskirts of Vientiane on a weekday was not a tour in a park, but like a jungle adventure. While the 20-year-old zoo might be a little short on amenities for visitors wanting to relax, it is on its way to becoming a fully equipped rehabilitation centre for rescued wild animals.
“The animals arrive here mostly in terrible conditions,” said Mr Saylin Ong, former executive director of Animal Concerns, Research and Education Society (ACRES) Wildlife Sanctuary that is working with the Lao Zoo.
In October last year he was able to organise a rescue of a pig-tailed macaque that was kept in captivity at a guesthouse in Vilabouly district in Savannakhet province. The guesthouse owners handed over the macaque after they were contacted by Lao government officials, informing them that it was illegal to keep wildlife in captivity.
The rescue, according to Derin Henderson, a senior environmental specialist of the Hatfield Consultants Mekong based in Laos, “would be a great opportunity for an important public awareness message that wildlife should not be kept in captivity.”
“The Lao PDR is considered one of the most biodiversity-rich countries in Southeast Asia, and biodiversity is fundamental for a community’s and nation’s survival. Sadly however, the illegal capture and trade in wildlife is contributing to the rapid decline of biodiversity in this country, along with the loss and fragmentation of habitat,” Henderson said.
Referring to the stump-tailed macaques kept inside an electrical wire fence, Mr Saylin said the animals were kept in terrible cages like that of a bird before they were rescued. “We teach them to become monkeys again,” he said. Inspired by a zoo in Singapore, the Lao zoo allows the animals to “see the sky and walk on grass again,” he explained.
Out of 10 macaques inside the electric fence, five of them were rescued from Vangvieng, a tourist destination in Vientiane province that is famous among backpackers. There are over 60 macaques in the zoo, and 20 percent of them were rescued. They were grouped in high cages with different ages mixed together. Mr Saylin noted that some mother macaques support the younger ones instinctively. This is an advantage in their socialisation, he said.
The typical abuses the monkeys suffered from included having their canine teeth pulled out to render them less dangerous, being tied up with chains and being forced to dance to entertain tourists. Such was the case of the latest one rescued last October.
Mr Saylin cited another macaque named Noi that came from a temple, chained by the neck and wrist like a slave; his wounds were infected from the chains. The smallest one, Kua, was rescued from Kuangxi waterfall in Luang Prabang province.
The monkeys commonly have Hepatitis A, malaria and dengue when they came into the zoo, according to Eliza Jinata, manager of veterinary care. She said that most of their injuries were bites by other monkeys due to fighting over food. Their diet includes fruits, leaves, vegetables and insects which are the source of 90 percent of their protein.
Finally, the construction of the three buildings inside the compound has been completed. They will serve as an animal kitchen, an animal hospital which will accommodate up to 15 animals, and a quarantine bloc, sanctuary manager Sean Mckillop said.
The ACRES Wildlife Rescue and Education Centre (AWREC) that was established in 2012 provides sanctuary to animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. The AWREC serves as an educational facility “to create much-needed awareness on the wildlife trade, environmental protection and a host of animal protection issues.”
Meanwhile, some local visitors in the zoo recognised the dilemma between keeping the wild animals in the zoo and leaving them in the forests. For one, Ms Touly told Vientiane Times that she thinks the zoo is not a good place for the animals. “They are not happy to be here. I prefer to look at the animals in the forest. But, protection of wildlife in Laos is not yet effective and they become food if someone finds them in the forest,” she said.
She wanted to call on the authorities to make bigger enclosures and plant more trees inside the 13-hectare zoo, which also houses bears, civets, gibbons, an elephant, a camel, butterflies, and various species of birds among other animals.
Another visitor, Mr Hua Chang, had visited the Lao zoo for the third time since his first visit over six years ago. “There were many animals but I don’t know where they are now. I hope they did not die,” he said.
Some animals were released back to the forests when their health conditions proved to be sustainable to survive, Mr Saylin said. However, some of them have to remain in the zoo for the rest of their lives as they could no longer recuperate from the damages inflicted by humans.
(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is a fellow of FK Norway exchange program. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by Vientiane Times.)