phnom tamao, Takeo province – Little Chhouk probably hadn’t had a swim—an important regular event for any elephant—in more than a year and a half.
Hobbled by an injury that cost him a foot, Chhouk—a willful but playful toddler of 3—isn’t able to join the other elephants at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center when they go for their daily swim.
But Saturday, he took to the water, rolling and tumbling about for a good hour in a new pool constructed at the rescue center.
“They look very happy with the new pool,” the center’s director, Nhiek Rotannak Pich, said at the pool’s grand opening Saturday where Chhouk and another older elephant, Lucky, splashed about.
“For a long time we keep [Chhouk] at Phnom Tamao here, but he could not ever go in the water.”
Nick Marx of the NGO Wildlife Alliance, which assists the Forestry Administration in caring for the center’s elephants, said that trips to the swimming hole are an important part of an elephant’s routine.
“It’s good for their skin, and it’s good for their psyche, if you will,” he said.
At the age of 2, Chhouk had lost his mother in the forests of Mondolkiri province and had lost his left front foot, quite likely to a snare trap. Alone and hampered with a crippling wound, he likely would have died had he not been found by a WWF patrol in March of last year.
The Forestry Administration decided to have the youngster brought to Phnom Tamao, and he has made tremendous progress since that time, but he is still not capable of walking all that far without getting exhausted.
Marx, who was part of the team that rescued Chhouk and brought him to the center, said that the pool, which has broad concrete steps to accommodate the elephant’s disability, would be particularly good for the young bull because it would allow him to move about more freely and get some exercise.
The pool, which was constructed in a small, private forest clearing close to the elephant enclosure, was funded largely by donations collected by an Australian couple living in Phnom Penh.
Barb Braniff and Ash Eason, who own the Lazy Gecko restaurant in Phnom Penh and run tours to Phnom Tamao through their tour company, collected the money for the pool over the course of a year, largely through raffle tickets sold at their restaurant during a weekly quiz night, and by selling paintings by Lucky the elephant—abstract, but curiously appealing, blasts of color. Wildlife Alliance also contributed $600 to make the $2,124 pool possible.
“We were worried about Chhouk—that he didn’t have enough fun in his life for a baby elephant,” Braniff said at Saturday’s opening.
With Chhouk rolling under the water, trunk raised as a natural snorkel, Nhiek Rotannak Pich and Marx said that the next step is to get the young elephant a prosthetic foot.
Both said a hospital in Cambodia is already lined up to create the prosthetic and work is now being done to determine the cost.
“It depends on how much the specialists and the prostheses cost, and whatever it costs we’ll do it,” Marx said. Nhiek Rotannak Pich said he suspected it would be easy to find sponsors willing to cover the cost of the artificial foot.
A number of zoo officials said that as Chhouk grows, it will be more and more important for him to have a prosthetic foot. He is currently putting a lot of strain on one side of his body, which could lead to serious bone deformities down the road, particularly to his spine.
“Getting a human to accept a prosthesis is hard enough, but to get an elephant?” Marx said.
“But he is still young, so I think we have a good chance.”
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