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Baby Chhouk gets a leg up on life


A volunteer initiative between a wildlife NGO and a maker of mainly human prosthetics offers Phnom Tamao's baby elephant Chhouk a new foot - and a new chance at life.

Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
Nick Marx of Wildlife Alliance (far left, holding elephant trunk) comforts Chhouk, a baby elephant who lost his foot, possibly from a poacher’s trap, while elephant keeper Tan and staff from the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics attempt to fit him with a new “shoe” Friday at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

This is an example of something totally challenging ... i’m very surprised

PROSTHETICS students from 10 different nations travelled Friday to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center by Forestry Administration to see Chhouk, a 4-year-old baby elephant who lost part of a leg, be fitted with a new prosthesis.

During the trip, organised by the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics (CSPO), Cathy McConnell, who headed the prosthesis project, said it was only the second case she knew of an elephant receiving a prosthetic limb.

"We weren't sure if it would work with the limited resources we have here," McConnell said. "But the staff were keen to take on the challenge."

At first, a temporary foot using the same materials as human prosthetics with a base made from car tyre was designed for testing, McConnell said. This was fitted to replace the 12 centimetres of Chhouk's
missing foot on March 28 with excellent results.

It was assumed Chhouk would need sedating during the X-ray and casting, McConnell said, but a supply of turnips and bananas was enough to keep him happy.

Thou Sambath, a key member of the design team from CSPO, said this original prosthesis needed three repairs in the two months since fitting, so the new design was made more rigid to withstand the wear and tear that comes with being an elephant's prosthetic.

But on Friday as the team tried out the new design, the added rigidity made it difficult to fit. Once on, it still appeared to be too tight and uncomfortable for Chhouk, who eventually threw a minor elephant tantrum until it was removed.

Thou Sambath said it was the first time he had worked with a patient that could not give him feedback regarding comfort and fit.

"What he wants, he cannot tell us," he said.

Finding the perfect design will come down to trial and error, so new measurements were taken and the design will be adjusted as needed to find the right balance between durability and comfort, Thou Sambath said.

Rann Vannara, who is about to complete a bachelor''s degree in prosthetics at Latrobe University in Melbourne, Australia, said he learned the importance of adaptability to his job from the day's excursion.

"In our work we will meet different types of injuries and various cases. We will need to adjust our methods," Rann Vannara said. "This is an example of something challenging - something totally different. I'm very surprised and impressed by [the prosthetic team] and their adaptability."

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Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
Chhouk enjoys a swim with his friend Lucky at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre on Friday.

‘No chance of survival'
Chhouk was found two years ago, wandering alone in the forests of Mondulkiri, explained Wildlife Alliance's Nick Marx, who was called in at the time to assess Chhouk's condition. He said he thought Chhouk most likely lost his foot in a snare, and his stump was badly infected.

"He was so thin and sick. I felt the little chap had no chance of survival," Marx said, adding that now he is "a happy fat little fellow".

But although Chhouk recovered well from the injury, he was off balance, and his right leg had begun to bow outward due to the extra weight it was carrying, Marx said. After contacting CSPO, a team led by McConnell volunteered their own time, working during lunch breaks and weekends, to create the new foot.

Funding for the materials was raised by Wildlife Alliance.

According to Phnom Tamao's elephant keeper of 10 years, Try Sitheng, Chhouk and one of the older elephants, Lucky, are now like brother and sister. Equipped with his new foot, Chhouk loves to run through the forest with Lucky on the hunt for jungle fruits.

"Without his shoe he walks very slowly," Try Sitheng said.

"With his shoe he can run very well. He plays with Lucky and puts the sand on his head. I think he is very happy when he has a foot like that," he added.

"Nothing has fazed the little elephant," Marx said. "A lesser spirit might not have survived the ordeal, but Chhouk's resilience and personality has actually made such a difficult problem absolutely no trouble at all."

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