One of the highlights of our brand new Phnom Tamao Unique Wildlife Experience that provides a behind-the-scenes insight into the work of the Wildlife Alliance team at their wildlife rescue center, is the chance to meet Chhouk, the celebrity elephant with the prosthetic foot. So what’s Chhouk’s story?
Chhouk, the celebrity elephant with a prosthetic foot
In April 2007, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) elephant patrol in the Srepok Wilderness Area in remote Northeastern Cambodia came across a young male elephant, seriously emaciated and in obvious pain due to a severe foot injury. No more than a year old, the elephant was alone and having trouble moving around and feeding himself because the bottom portion of his right front leg had been lost, almost surely to a poacher’s snare, and was dangerously swollen and infected. Concerned about the seriousness of the injury and the level of care the elephant would require, WWF and the Cambodian Forestry Administration reached out to Wildlife Alliance and Nick Marx for assessment and assistance.
Nick, Forestry Administration veterinarian Nhim Thy, and two members of the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team left immediately to make the cross-country trip to Mondulkiri province to assist with this emergent situation. Upon arrival, it was apparent the situation was even worse than advertised. Aggressive and nervous, the elephant was not eating the food that was being supplied to him. After spending time with the elephant, hand feeding him and calming him down, Wildlife Alliance administered immediate treatment to his foot and assessed the extent of the damage. Ultimately, Wildlife Alliance staff spent two weeks in the jungle gaining the elephant’s trust, treating his injuries and malnutrition, and assessing his long-term prospects. The staff recognized that the elephant would never be able to survive on his own in the wild and so arranged for Chhouk (“Lotus Flower”), as he came to be called, to be transported to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center (PTWRC) where Wildlife Alliance veterinarians and animal husbandry specialists could attend to his special needs.
Chhouk and the team set out on an arduous 26-hour journey through dense forest, on long roads, and through the disorienting experience of traffic in Phnom Penh, on their way to PTWRC. His personal keepers, Mr. Tam and Mr. Sarim, were waiting for him at an enclosure created especially for his needs. It was not immediately certain that Chhouk would survive his injury. With dedicated veterinary care, Wildlife Alliance staff was able to see to the healing of his leg wound and eradication of his infections. He was housed alongside the other four rescued Asian elephants at PTWRC and formed a special bond with Lucky, an older female elephant, who took the youngster under her wing. However, Chhouk’s hardships were not over.
The damage caused by his missing foot was threatening his spine and hips. The stress on elephants’ legs is already great and with Chhouk off balance, he was at risk of developing bone deformities. Wildlife Alliance animal care specialists determined that the only way to address his mobility and pain issues would be to fit him with a prosthetic foot. A partnership was formed with the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics, with financial support from the SeaWorld Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, to build Chhouk a prosthesis, the first of its kind in Cambodia. Immediately after being fitted with the foot, Chhouk’s issues improved rapidly. He is now on his fifth foot as he continues to grow and require new prostheses to match his size and boundless energy.
Chhouk’s story and survival against all odds have made him a global ambassador for Asian elephant conservation and the plight of elephants in Cambodia specifically. He has been featured on television programmes all over the globe, as well as innumerable international print media sources. He is much loved in Cambodia, where he is a top attraction for PTWRC’s more than 200,000 visitors each year. As he’s got older, Chhouk has become less predictable and as such, to ensure the safety of his keepers, a steel fence always separates him from his handlers. He has been trained using a reward based system and the worst that can happen is if Chhouk does not do what is required, he does not receive his reward, a banana or an apple. He’s a smart guy who loves his food and has quickly learnt that compliance benefits all. This includes removing his prosthetic foot twice each day. Come and meet Chhouk for yourself as part of Hanuman’s Phnom Tamao Wildlife Experience.