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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center gives baby elephant new lease on life

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center gives baby elephant new lease on life

Betelnut Tours, which conducts trips to the center, is hosting a quiz this Friday to raise money for the animals

Photo by: TOM HUNTER

Sun Vathana, Betelnut Tour guide, and a gibbon named Preah Vihear.

Photo by: TOM HUNTER

Lucky comes across a curious tour participant.

Photo by: TOM HUNTER

Betelnut Tour jeep.

Photo by: TOM HUNTER

Betelnut Tour participants enjoy a feast fit for a king.

Photo by:

TOM HUNTER

Chhouk and his older play mate Lucky enjoy a swim.

Photo by:

TOM HUNTER

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center.

Srepok Wilderness Area is nestled among the mountains of Mondulkiri in Cambodia's northeast. The area is home to banteng, gaur, tiger and some of the countries last remaining wild Asian elephants. It is remote and rugged with few roads and little infrastructure.

Mondulkiri's isolation provides the perfect cover for Cambodia's animal poachers. The area is littered with snares, animal traps designed to hold live animals until their captors release them into the nation's illegal wildlife trade.

In March 2007, a team of Wildlife Alliance rangers heard reports of a baby elephant wandering through the forest. Early reports had identified the young elephant as alone and distraught with his front left foot severely injured and infected.

It is thought that the elephant had his leg caught in a snare trap designed for a creature of lesser stature. While he was able to free himself from the trap, his leg was badly damaged and in need of immediate medical treatment.

Two years later, the elephant - named Chhouk - lives at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, home to seven other Asian elephants, one of the world's largest population of sun and moon bears, gibbons, endangered otters, an African lion and hundreds of rescued animals, freed from lives of captivity, cruelty and mistreatment.

The wildlife centre is located 45 kilometres south of Phnom Penh on 2,300 hectares of government-owned regenerated forest. The centre is home to Wildlife Alliance's Care for Rescued Wildlife program designed to care for animals that cannot be reintegrated back into the wild. The centre looks after 1,100 animals, which include 93 species of endangered and threatened animals.

Chhouk was in a bad state, he had tore his own foot off to free himself from the snare.

Phnom Penh's Betelnut jeep tours conduct informative guided day trips to the centre with a focus on the peril that Cambodia's wildlife faces and some unique close encounters with endangered animals.

My guide for the day was 22-year-old Sun Vathana who has been working at the park, through Betelnut Tours, for approximately six months.

An obvious animal enthusiast, Sun Vathana loves her new job - a world away from her previous workplace, a garment factory. "At my old job, I would do the same thing every day. I didn't like that ... it was so boring," she said. "At first I was scared of the animals and I didn't get too close, but it was very important for me to confront my fears so I could get closer to the animals that I love."

The park is home to an estimated 80 gibbons. Each animal has a personality, some more pleasant than others.

Sun Vathana warned me to stay away for the black gibbon - "very cheeky," she said. Sure enough, I was attacked twice throughout the day by two gibbons eager to steal my camera.

The gibbons are indicative of some of the animals in the park who have often been tormented by their captors.

One gibbon, aptly named Preah Vihear, after the conflict in the Cambodia/Thai border town where the monkey was found, is new to the park and the hair on her leg is noticeably missing. She was found in a private home by Wildlife Alliance, chained, malnourished and disturbed. When Preah Vihear was found, she was chained by her left foot, bleeding from her efforts to escape.

Preah Vihear is the only gibbon in the park that lives alone. Her injuries and volatile personality mean that she is unable to be paired with a companion. When we arrive at her enclosure, she seems eager for attention and lonely, a gentle creature reaching a bare arm out of the cage for attention. Sun Vathana tells me that on her last visit the gibbon bit her on the wrist.  

According to a survey completed last year by World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 79 percent of primates in Southeast Asia are now facing extinction. "The wildlife trade is second only to the drug trade in terms of how much money it generates in Southeast Asia," David Emmett, regional director of the Indo-Burma program at Conservation International, said in an interview with the Post last October.

Nick Marx, Care for Rescued Wildlife project manager, is responsible for rescuing endangered animals destined for the illegal wildlife trade.

Marx leads a team of animal care specialists who found Chhouk the elephant in Mondulkiri province, and considering the severity of Chhouk's injuries and the fact that his mother had abandoned him, concluded that the best place for the elephant was the centre. "Chhouk was in a bad state. He had torn his own foot off to free himself from the snare, and the wound was badly infected with maggots,"  said Barb Braniff, Betelnut tour operator.

After ruling out a helicopter airlift due to cost and the remote location, Chhouk was transported - while heavily sedated - on the back of a truck cushioned with banana leaves and rice straw. The journey took 26 hours.

"I'm sure he's happy and doesn't feel disabled, but he is in desperate need of a prosthetic foot," Marx said. "His left leg is starting to bow out and he cannot walk long distances with the other elephants. If he is left like this it will eventually damage the rest of his body," said Marx.

A new invention

Elephant prostheses are a relatively new invention. Chhouk will be the third elephant ever to receive the treatment.

A Thai elephant named Motola first received the treatment in 2006, after having her leg injured by a land mine.

Chhouk's new leg, which is being made by the Cambodian School of Prosthesis and Orhtotics (CSPO), will cost an estimated US$30,000; however, it is hard to estimate the full cost of the projected as Chhouk will need a new prosthesis every year until he is fully grown.

CSPO is an educational center where students from the region can learn how to prescribe, manufacture and fit artificial limbs and orthopedic braces.

In their spare time they have generously volunteered their knowledge to make Chhouk's artificial foot.

Betelnut Tours, which operates out of the Lazy Geko Cafe is hosting a quiz night this Friday to raise much needed funds for Chhouk and PTWRC. Teams of 4 wishing to register for the event can do so by calling 012 619 924, subject to availability.

Betelnut Tours runs weekly guided trips to PTWRC. The all inclusive tours cost US$30 and can be arranged through www.betelnuttours.com.

Those wishing to donate to the park and Chhouk's new foot can do so through www.wildlifealliance.org

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