By Michael Portillo

Prosthetic limbs aren’t just for people!

In fact, the world’s first elephant hospital is now also the world’s first elephant prosthesis factory, dedicated to treating elephant amputees who have been injured by landmines in Northern Thailand.

When the Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation was established in 1993, it became the world’s first hospital for elephants.

Since that time, they have treated over 4,500 elephants for various ailments, ranging from dehydration and general malaise, to cataracts, cancer, and even human-inflicted injuries such as knife and gunshot wounds.

The most challenging cases, however, are treating those patients that have been injured by some of the many landmines that litter Thailand’s border regions, left behind from years of civil unrest in a number of neighboring countries.

The number of landmines that remain hidden in the hills and jungles lining Thailand’s border is staggering.

Mosha stepped on a landmine on the border of Thailand and Myanmar.

Estimates report up to 2,400 mines-per-mile in some areas and, for the people of Thailand, this has meant living with the ever-present threat of landmine injury.

Since 2007 alone, there have been more than 6000 reported human landmine casualties. However, as the team at the FAE know, it’s not only people that can be injured by landmines.

The world’s first elephant prosthesis, performed at the FAE on a 2-year-old elephant called Mosha, was, in fact, a landmine victim.

Mosha

When Mosha first came to the Elephant Hospital at the FAE, she was only 7 months old and had lost her front leg to a landmine on Thailand’s border with Myanmar.

She was attempting to compensate without the use of her limb by raising her trunk and leaning on other structures for support, but this task would become increasingly difficult as she grew to her adult weight.

Two years after her arrival, visiting orthopedic surgeon Doctor Therdchai Jivacate met Mosha, and, after a career of providing more than 25,000 prosthetic limbs to human amputees around Thailand, he decided to take on her case.

He and his team worked with the vets at the FAE to design a prosthetic limb that could support a growing elephant, working through the complex biomechanics that came along with such a task.

In the years since, Mosha has received no fewer than ten prosthetic legs, the design being adjusted and improved each time to support her needs as she grows.

The prosthesis has evolved to a more sophisticated version of the first and is now constructed from an individual mould using thermoplastic, steel and elastomer.

Careful design provides support for the limb while also allowing for fluid movement within the leg, and Mosha now wears it confidently at all times except overnight when it is removed.

Making The Prosthetic Legs

To create each limb is a painstaking exercise in finesse, requiring many alternations and fine-tuning along the way.

The process begins with the creation of a mold from which a cast is made, before then reinforcing it with the thermoplastic and steel. As a remarkable feat of engineering and medicine, it is a wonderful example of what can be achieved though the collaboration of engineers, human surgeons and veterinarians.

Today At The Hospital

Since first treating Mosha, the team at the FAE have seen many other elephant victims of landmines, the oldest resident at the hospital approaching 60 years old.

In 1999, this elephant, named Motala, stepped on a mine in the same region as Mosha, while she was being used as a logging elephant.

Like Mosha, Motala has also been fitted with a prosthesis which has been updated over the years through a process of trial and error. Today, Mosha and Motala are long-term residents at the FAE Foundation.

Every day starts with the fitting of their artificial limbs (a process involving covering the injured limb in talcum powder, fitting a sock and then attaching the prosthesis) before going on a walk to breakfast.

The two elephants have developed a close bond over the years, but none more so than the friendship that Mosha shares with Doctor Jivacate – still recognizing and greeting him with a trunk-salute every time he visits her.

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