Long before he arrived in Cambodia in 2002, Nick Marx had a special bond with wild animals. He’d worked at parks in India and South Africa, but it was at Howletts Wild Animal Park in his native England that he forged the strongest relationships with nature’s nonhumans. Marx took to the tigers in particular—so much so that he refused to stop entering their cages even after they killed three of his colleagues and the park instituted a ban on direct contact with the animals. At the park’s urging, Marx left Howletts to pursue a degree in conservation biology.
It’s not a job for just anyone. Working in tandem with the Cambodian government, Marx has taken the country’s illegal wildlife trade head-on, confiscating, caring for, and releasing animals that would have otherwise been doomed. He does this with the help of the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team (WRRT), a small group made up of military police, a forestry official, an Australian ex-police advisor, and a Cambodian manager. Guided by information obtained from a wildlife hotline and a network of paid informants, team members travel throughout Cambodia, a country the size of Oklahoma, with two clear goals: to rescue imperiled animals and bring those responsible for their suffering to justice.
The WRRT, which received the United Nations’ Asia Environmental Enforcement Award for best wildlife law enforcement in Asia in 2015, has confiscated individual members of most of Cambodia’s wild species, from black bears to elephants to gibbons.
What’s most remarkable is the extent to which Marx and his team care for the animals after rescue. The few that don’t require further attention are released right away. But most, having suffered periods of sometimes brutal captivity, need rehabilitation, monitoring, and support as they relearn how to live in the wild. Marx oversees such care programs at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center (6,000 acres of forest that receives nearly 300,000 annual visitors), the Wildlife Release Station (once the biggest hunting village in Cambodia), and the Angkor temple complex (home to Angkor Wat, the country’s most popular tourist attraction). An innovative project started in 2013 releases rescued pileated gibbons, a species native to Cambodia, into the protected forest surrounding the ancient temples.
“Phnom Tamao used to be a place where animals went to die,” Marx says. “Now it’s transformed into the best rescue center in the region. Rescue and release work really is groundbreaking. It’s so exciting and such a challenge.”
And quite an adventure. Marx has thousands of rescue stories, but one of his favorites is of a baby elephant named Chhouk, or “lotus flower” in Khmer. After a patrol unit found the motherless, injured Chhouk in a forest in remote northeastern Cambodia, Marx and some of his team went to assess the situation. Then, while the others traveled back to Phnom Penh to make arrangements for the elephant’s rescue, Marx stayed in the forest, sleeping in a hammock beside Chhouk. “I tried to calm him down—he was small but wild and frightened,” Marx remembers. “And injured. His damaged leg was rotten, maggot-infested. I thought he was sure to die.”
A week later, Marx and Chhouk were riding together in the back of a truck in a cage made of banana tree limbs, on their way to Phnom Tamao. There, veterinarians amputated Chhouk’s foot and began the search for a prosthesis. In Cambodia, a country full of land mines, prosthesis makers are plentiful, but only one person—Cathy McConnell of the Cambodia School of Prosthetics and Orthotics—was willing to take a chance on Chhouk.
Against all odds, the baby elephant accepted the new limb immediately. That was almost 10 years ago now, and Chhouk is thriving at Phnom Tamao. “He gets bad tempered without his prosthesis; he wears it day and night,” Marx says. “We’d rather he be in the wild, but so far, so good. And without the prosthetic, he’d unquestionably be dead or seriously deformed.”
Chhouk’s injury highlights the cruel methods by which many animals are illegally trapped in Cambodia. Hunters blanket forests with hundreds of snare traps, wires that trip or hang unwitting animals, tightening around their legs or their necks, leaving them to die a brutal and slow death. Snares are unselective and set in clusters, and they can wipe out entire populations: If an animal doesn’t walk into one snare, it will likely walk into another. If it is able to escape the wire, it often dies as a result of its injury. Chhouk was one of the lucky ones.
“People don’t understand the damage snares do,” Marx says. “They must be banned in all countries, and there must be heavy penalties for using them if we want to save wildlife.”
Marx and his team, along with the Cambodian government, are certainly committed to the mission of saving wildlife. From sleeping alongside baby elephants to chasing down would-be poachers, they are demonstrating how we can stop this horrible practice. “What we’re doing to wildlife populations is catastrophic—reducing many, many species to extinction. And this has to stop,” Marx says. “If I can play my little part in helping to stop that, then I reckon my life’s been worthwhile.”