Elephant populations across the globe are under threat from habitat degradation and poaching. As well as coping with climate change which pushes elephants’ hydration needs to the limit (they lose around two bathtubs full of water a day), they are killed for their ivory or as trophies. Thankfully there are teams of conservationists and scientists working together to protect these social and highly intelligent animals.
Snares are a big problem for elephants despite being intended to catch smaller animals. The wire loops are the perfect size for snagging on the ankles of baby elephants, one of whom was fortunately rescued by the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (SWT) last month.
“These young, innocent babies are not necessarily the poacher’s intended victim: Small- to medium-sized snares are often set to catch animals for bushmeat,” said Executive Director for SWT Rob Brandford in an email to IFLScience. “But these deadly traps are indiscriminate and do not discern between a young elephant or an impala and will maim any animal that has the misfortune to step in them or stick their neck through them.”
One such animal was Chhouk, who was just a calf when he was found in March 2007 in Mondulkiri, Northeast Cambodia. Having gotten his leg caught in a snare, the elephant was found with the foot having already been amputated and the remaining stump had become seriously infected. An underweight and malnourished Chhouk was taken in by the Wildlife Alliance and Exceed Worldwide and eventually nursed back to health.
Unfortunately, there was still nothing to be done for Chhouk’s foot, but the team got to work on an artificial limb that could replace it. Working from the Phnom Penh Physical Rehabilitation Centre, they established a design with the help of PhD researcher Sisary Kheng at the University of Salford, UK. Kheng’s work with the Centre for Doctoral Training in Prosthetics and Orthotics based in Cambodia is supported by The Coles-Medlock Foundation.
“Chhouk’s shoe has two separate parts, a soft flexible inside shoe and a hard-durable outside shoe with a tractor tire on the bottom,” said Kheng in a statement sent to IFLScience. "Chhouk also wears special socks to prevent chafing. Every six months he needs a new shoe, and every time we work together to make one. So far, Chhouk has had 17 new shoes.”
Chhouk, alongside elephant pal Lucky, are two of around 1,500 animals currently cared for at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center which is managed by the Cambodian Forestry Administration and stretched across 5,600 acres of forest. Kheng’s work extends far beyond the shoes of this young elephant, as she has spent the past two decades helping people with disabilities living in poverty in South East Asia to access free prosthetic and orthotic services. That her craft can be translated from humans to wildlife is just the cherry on top of an already pioneering scientific career.
As Kheng says: “Prosthetic limbs aren’t just for people; they can be for elephants too.”