I am a huge fan of the Survivor reality television series. The show places people in desolate environments, typically in tropical regions around the world. It is the ultimate test of physical, mental and social abilities. As a triple amputee and power wheelchair user, I have accepted that my dream of becoming a castaway on the show is probably out of reach. Dense tropical forests and sandy beaches are generally not wheelchair-friendly. :p
But my recent trip to Cambodia allowed me to recreate one of the reward experiences from Season 32 for myself - interacting with elephants at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. The wildlife refuge, located 45 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, is managed by Wildlife Alliance. The facility cares for more than 1,000 animals that have been rescued after injury caused by hunters and poachers. This official video highlights the work Wildlife Alliance is doing in Cambodia:
Meeting the Elephants
As I researched how to make this visit possible, I learned about a unique and inspiring resident of the Phnom Tamao center: Chhouk, an amputee elephant with a prosthetic foot. In addition to interacting with and feeding some of the female elephants, I was also able to watch as Chhouk's prosthetic foot was changed - a process that is carried out twice a day. I'll share that with you in a bit, but I'd like to first showcase a picture and some video of my interactions with the elephants that appeared on Survivor.
I never expected to tour a Cambodian wildlife refuge in a wheelchair - but I am grateful that the Wildlife Alliance team welcomed me to their reserve. With every trip I take, I am reminded just how much is possible with a little bit of planning. Meeting the beautiful female elephant Lucky (seen in the video above) was a real treat, and is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life!
As part of the behind-the-scenes tour, I also met Chhouk, who was rescued after being caught in a hunter's snare. He lost his foot through that ordeal and faced a long recovery. Once grown, he was fitted with a prosthetic foot which improved his quality of life. He is the only elephant in Cambodia using a prosthetic device!
Because Chhouk is a male elephant with large tusks and some trust issues, I was not able to interact with him directly. Instead, I watched as Wildlife Alliance trainers changed his prosthetic foot - a process that is key to ensuring the health of his amputated leg. Check out this video of the procedure (turn up the volume to hear the trainers describe what they are doing):
I was pleased to see the trainers using positive reinforcement to gain Chhouk's cooperation. Physical force is never used against the elephants at Phnom Tamao - this makes for a safe refuge for the elephants, most of whom have gone through a traumatic experience in the wild.
In the case of Lucky, that beautiful elephant I fed in my first video - she was harmed (doused with acid) after eating a villager's crops. Cambodia's growth, coupled with the arrival of poachers, has cut the population of elephants down to a few hundred (from thousands). Wildlife Alliance provides a refuge for these creatures, and the staff is committing to ensuring that they live in comfort and safety.
Plan A Visit of Your Own
In addition to the behind-the-scenes tour, Phnom Tamao also includes a zoo. I was able to see all manner of animals - from big cats to otters and monkeys. Admission to the zoo is available for $5 USD, and no reservations are required.
If you'd like to meet the elephants as I did, reach out to Wildlife Alliance using the contact information on their website. While the tour is not fully accessible, I'm sure they would be willing to organize an experience with your accessibility needs in mind (like they did for me). This tour usually requires a minimum donation of $150 USD, which is used to support their work (and feed the animals!).
For transportation, I used Mobilituk - the world's first wheelchair accessible tuk-tuk. Reserving Mobilituk for the entire day cost only $40 USD. The roads on the 90-minute journey from Phnom Penh are in fair shape, and the ride was pretty smooth. For the able-bodied, transportation from Phnom Penh is included in the $150 tour fee.
My experience at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center was a dream come true. Not only did I get to visit a Survivor location, I spent time feeding the elephants and met an amputee elephant that inspired me. I traveled through less developed areas of Cambodia, and saw the country's natural beauty.
I highly recommend a trip to Phnom Tamao - it is one you will never forget. If you do go, make sure to pack some sunscreen and drink lots of water. It is hot!