It’s been a while since our last update from the Angkor Wat Rewilding programme. The World Heritage site’s been quiet, but we’ve been busy behind the scenes monitoring and releasing animals! 

Our release program at Angkor began in 2013 as part of an initiative to rewild the Angkor Protected Landscape with its natural heritage.

Since then, around 40 animals have been released, from primates like gibbons and langurs, to carnivores like otters, civets and leopard cats. A lucky pair of Pileated gibbons, were the first animals to be released at Angkor, and since then, three more pairs have been released! To date, six babies have been born at Angkor. With any luck, these babies will go on to have families of their own! Pileated gibbons are globally endangered, making these families important for the species.

Let’s catch up on what our gibbon families have been up to!

The Gibbon Saga: sibling rivalry, sleeping on the roof and re-capture

Baray and Saranik were our first pair of gibbons released in December 2013. They had their first baby, Ping-Peeung (Meaning spider in Khmer) on the 3rd September 2014 and have also gone on to have 2 more wild born offspring. Their most recently born offspring turned 1 year old on the 30th March!

Ping-Peeung is now 6 years old and the keepers have observed, over the past 8 months, her parents, especially Baray, pushing her away from the family unit with increased tensions at meal times. During meal times, Ping-Peeung would retreat to lower branches in the tree close to the feeding platform and take food only after mum, dad and babies had finished eating.

This sibling rivalry was solved briefly by the addition of one more feeding platform about 40m away, allowing Ping-Peeung to eat alone, without competition from her parents and younger siblings. On 22 December she was excluded by the family and found her way into a nearby village. She ended up sleeping in the rafters of a villager’s house! This put Ping-Peeung and the people in the house in danger, leading to the so the sad decision on the 25th of December to capture her. Quite the unexpected Christmas surprise!

A tricky trio and a surprise couple! 

Santamea was born to the initial third pair of gibbons that were released at Angkor. Her parents, Boeung and Banteay were caught by poachers from the wild, and were raised as pets. Luckily, they were saved from this unnatural life by Wildlife Alliance. They were brought to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre and Zoo where they later gave birth to Santamea. There, they regained their wild instincts, and in January 2018, all three gibbons were released at Angkor.

While the family adapted to living within Angkor Protected Forest, their upbringing as pets meant that the trio had little fear of humans. They started becoming aggressive towards the keepers, with the female attacking a keeper at feeding time. This prompted the tough but necessary decision to  recapture the family just days after their release. Boeung, Banteay and baby Santamea returned to Phnom Tamao.

Pileated gibbon socialised with humans no fear of humans at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre and Zoo Cambodia

But for Santamea, that wasn’t the end of the story. She and captive born male, Bakheng got another chance at life in the wild! In December 2018, the pair were transferred from Phnom Tamao to a prerelease enclosure in the Angkor Protected Forest on the 16th December to acclimatise before release. However, Santamea picked up a few habits from her parents, with keepers observing similar aggressive behaviour. Sadly, she also didn’t appear strongly bonded to Bakheng as preferred for a release couple.

Luckily, a natural solution appeared when Ping-Peeung, the first female born at Angkor, was captured from the villager’s roof! On that same eventful Christmas Day, Ping-Peeung took Santamea’s place in the Forest. Santamea was returned once again to Phnom Tamao, and has settled into an enclosure under the expert care of the keepers there.

While Santamea’s chance in the wild didn’t work out, it did allow for a new relationship to flourish! Angkor’s new pair, Ping-Peeung and Bakheng have formed a very strong bond over the past three months, a very promising sign for their future release! Watch this space! Hopefully Ping-Peeung can teach him a thing or two about wild life in Angkor Protected Forest!

In Pileated Gibbon family groups, females are dominant at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre and Zoo Cambodia

What about the other Gibbons released at Angkor?  

On  30th June 2015, Angkor’s second Pileated gibbon pair, Bayon and Tevy were released. Read more about their release in our blog here. First pair, Baray and Saranik were a hard act to follow: they have so far produced three babies at Angkor! But despite their 18 month headstart, Bayon and Tevy have caught up, producing three babies of their own! The youngest, Dun-kow, was born on the 31st August 2020. Since the newest arrival, the family has shown similar behaviours to Baray and Saranik, with daddy Bayon pushing their 4 year old Ap-ping away at meal times. For the moment, an additional feeding platform has helped to reduce tension.

On the 1st of July 2020, the forth pair, Borei and Pompoy were released at Angkor. They are both doing really well so far, adapting to the new forest environment, whilst hanging nearby the release site and feeding station. Read more about their release in our blog post here.

What about other animals released at Angkor?

Evasive otters

In November 2019, a family of three smooth-coated otters were released at Angkor. Today, this striking otter species are globally vulnerable, but back in the day, they would likely have been regulars in Cambodia, especially in Angkor’s productive waterways.

Smooth-coated otters released at Angkor Protected Forest by Wildlife Alliance come for feeding time.jpg

In just a few months, the otter family settled in and quickly got down to business! In February 2020, two pups were spotted feeding with a pair of otters.

Smooth-coated otter pair released at Angkor Protected Forest, have 2 pups Wildlife Alliance

And there’s more good news: the otters are becoming wilder by the month! The wild-born pups are now over 1 year old and it’s difficult to tell them apart from their parents! The bad news? One of the adults doesn’t always show up for their supplementary twice daily feeds, but we hope this is for a good reason. The otter family used to have three main holts (or dens) where they would sleep-  perhaps they have made a fourth that we haven’t discovered yet! This new beginning iis a happy ending for rescued, otters who might otherwise have languished in cruel “otter cafes” across Asia, or kept in unsuitable conditions as pets in Cambodia.

Iconic hornbills and adventurous leopard cats! 

While all animals released at Angkor so far are mammals, last year we released our first birds! Parakeets are a common sight (and sound!) around temples and pagodas within the Angkor Archeological Park, but once upon a time, iconic hornbills certainly flew above the forests. These majestic birds, which could be called the toucans of Asia, feed on fruit trees and are important seed dispersers-  planting more forest as they go!

The first pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills were released at Angkor Protected Forest by Wildlife Alliance in 2020

On 1st October 2020, we transferred 2 Oriental pied hornbills into a prerelease enclosure within  the ancient forests around Angkor Wat. After two and a half months, the door to the hornbill enclosure was opened and the pair left three days later. They have not returned for any supplementary food, perhaps because fruiting season was in full swing, meaning rich pickings for hornbills! They are occasionally spotted by keepers flying high above the forest, just like in ancient times!

Leopard cat pair pre release at Angkor Protected Forest by Wildlife Alliance in December 2020

Survivors from the cruel pet trade

The hornbills and leopard cats were all  rescued from the pet trade in Cambodia. The hornbills and the female leopard cat were rehabilitated at Phnom Tamao, while the male leopard cat  was rehabilitated at the Wildlife Release Station in Koh Kong. He was brought to Angkor because of the current prevalence of male leopard cats in the vicinity of the Release Station, making it too risky to release another. After all, leopard cats, like all cat species, are territorial!

The leopard cat pair were released on the 2nd December and have not been seen since. This is the norm for a cat release and a good sign that they are adapting to their new forest home! Read about it in Cambodian national paper, the Khmer Times here.

Final thoughts on our release program at Angkor Protected Forest

So while Angkor Wat is not receiving the human visitors it used to, that hasn’t stopped us from re-wilding this World Heritage UNESCO site with some of its long lost natural inhabitants!

And the release project at Angkor continues! Together with site operators, the Apsara National Authority and the Forestry Administration, we aim to make Angkor Protected Forest a safe haven for wildlife once more!

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