'Survivor' Experience: Visiting Cambodia's Amputee Elephant

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Survivor Kaoh Rong Logo on bright blue background.
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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.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: John sitting in his wheelchair, feeding an elephant at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in Cambodia.
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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.

PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Sign at entrance to park that reads 'Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Wildlife Rescue Center'.
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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.

Final Thoughts

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!

  • Great read. I’ve never heard of an elephant (or any animal for that matter ) getting a prosthetic leg, nor have I heard of a mobile tuk tuk. Sounds like a worthwhile experience all round.

    • The Mobilituk is a game-changer. I’d never have been able to take this trip if it did not exist.

  • Mellissa Williams

    The only animal I have heard of having a prosthetic anything is Winter the dolphin at the Clearwater Aquarium that had his tale amputated and now has a prosthetic one. The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center sounds like it does amazing work.If I was ever in the area I would certainly visit.

    • Melissa, I am Florida-based and will have to check it out. I love when humans can interact with animals in a positive way to improve their quality of life. More often than not, we are destructive.

  • I’ve never heard of an elephant having a prosthetic leg, but that is extremely cool. Love what the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is doing and that they are actually caring for the animals, and not just trying to showcase them for tourists.

  • Andra

    This place looks amazing, I have been to Cambodia but didn’t get here. And it is unbelievable to see that elephants can have prosthetic legs. Amazing what technology can do nowadays. Given the sad situation of wild animals across the world, it is nice to see that this kind of places exist

  • How incredible that the elephant has a prosthetic. Did you do much travelling around the rest of Cambodia?

    • Unfortunately, I was only there for a week and spent all of my time in Phnom Penh. It left an incredible impression on me, and I am considering a longer-term stay of a month or more soon. Siem Reap is still something I must do.

  • Great story, I had no idea that a prosthetic could be made for such a large animal. I am very happy to see places exist that care for and not exploit elephants.

  • Hey John I’m very glad that your visit to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center was up to your expectations. It’s very important to have positive experiences while on the road. This is what makes us enjoy our good time abroad. Greetings all the way from Morocco.

    • Thanks, João! It was a very positive experience – in fact, my entire time in Cambodia was wonderful. Thank you for working so hard on your blog – it is one of my favorites! 🙂

  • That’s crazy that they made a prosthetic leg for the elephant (and SO cool!!!) Glad to know that it is truly more of a rehab center as opposed to sad animal tourism, like so many places in Asia are.

    • Yes – there is no elephant riding going on there! The behind-the-scenes tour groups are also very intimate, and the animals are not overwhelmed by the human contact.

  • What an amazing story, I love this! I’m really impressed so see that more and more places in Asia start taking care for animals and not only using them as money machines. Thanks for this post, I’ll definitely check out the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center when I’ll return to Cambodia later this year. Loved the videos, too!

    • Sab, I agree – it is nice to see animals treated with respect. I asked if any of the elephants in particular would be released and the answer was yes – some of them will be. Lucky and Chhouk, however, will not be. For both of them, though, there are reasons that cannot be argued.

  • Wow what an amazing experience and definitely one I bet you will no doubt remember forever! Would love to visit this place 🙂

  • What a wonderful story 🙂 Its always a joy to hear about wildlife rescue centres caring for injured animals. Would love to pay a visit!

  • Jen Ryder

    John, I saw you at House Boutique in Phnom Penh a few weeks ago! Sorry we didn’t meet then. I wish I’d found blog sooner! I’ve heard good things about Phnom Tamao, so we’ll have to pay a visit there. Thanks for sharing this. Also recently met one of the engineers who helped design the Mobilituk. A very cool design!

    • Wow! It’s a small world. Were you one of the local expats using the pool? I was usually very focused in my downtime there – sorry I did not say hello! The engineer Keogh is probably who you met – really nice guy. The whole team there is wonderful. 🙂

  • This is really something else. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that even elephants could be subject to amputations… sad for the elephant, but yay for the Wildlife Alliance! <3

    • Carly, there are still many hidden landmines in Cambodia – they create a great deal of disability in the country, for both animals and humans. Had Chhouk encountered the snare/trap as an adult, it wouldn’t have been able to catch him. Bad luck, unfortunately. 🙁

  • Oh I love this! Im glad Asia is slowly progressing when it comes to taking care of animals. They recently just shut a few of the tiger temples in Thailand. I definitely need to check this place out during my next trip to Cambodia!

  • Lauren @BonVoyageLauren

    It would be a dream come true to visit as well! Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  • Michele Fitzgerald

    This is very cool!!! Glad you got to see the place that is so near to my heart.

  • Mel Smith

    Hi John. Your blog is a fantastic resource. I am a wheelchair user myself – I have Cerebral Palsy. I live in Australia and recently travelled to Cambodia. This blog post inspired me to visit the wildlife sanctuary and do the behind the scenes tour. I met Lucky and was able to hand feed her – an experience I will cherish forever. Fantastic time with the staff as well. Thanks for sharing all your experiences – it is so helpful to fellow wheelies. Melinda

  • Mel Smith
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