Prosthetic expert sets elephants on their feet again


Dr Therdchai Jivacate has designed and fitted elephant landmine survivors with artificial legs.

THAI orthopaedic surgeon Assoc Prof Dr Therdchai Jivacate has two unusual patients – landmine survivors which were lucky enough to have artificial legs designed and fitted by him.

Dr Therdchai Jivacate

“In 2009, I visited Motala, a 30-year-old elephant, which had stepped on a landmine 15 years ago. Motala was sent to the world’s first Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampang province, northern Thailand, some 60km from Chiang Mai, after the accident,” he said. Occasionally, he visited Motala to check on her wound.

“I was the surgeon who removed the dead tissues from Motala’s left foot in 1995. It took more than 10 years for Motala’s wound to heal completely before she could be fitted with an artificial limb,” he said.

The same year, when he was visiting Motala, he chanced upon Mosha, a young elephant, also a landmine casualty.

Both Motala and Mosha were captive-born.

The elephant hospital in Lampang was opened in 1993 to treat sick and injured elephants. To date, over 3,000 elephants have been treated at the hospital for a host of health problems.

“In 2006, Mosha, then a seven-month-old baby elephant, followed her mother to Myanmar to work in the forest. Unfortunately, she stepped on a landmine and her right foot was blown off. Part of her leg had to be amputated. It took two years for her wound to heal,” said Dr Therdchai.

Dr Therdchai fitted Mosha with an artificial leg in 2009. This was featured in a documentary film, The Eyes Of Thailand.

Motala got her artificial leg a year later. The prosthetic leg is made of steel, while the socket is plastic.

“When the elephants were fitted with an artificial leg, they walked like normal. Before that, they walked on three legs,” he said, adding that for an elephant, the artificial leg had to be very strong to support its weight.

Mosha weighed about 600kg when Dr Therdchai saw her.

He explained that when an elephant walks, two-thirds of its body weight would be borne on the forelegs and one-third, by the hind legs.

“When I saw Mosha, she had been walking on three legs for two years. Her left elbow became bent because it bore too much weight. Her spine became curved. If we did not do anything for her, her left elbow would be permanently damaged from bearing too much weight. And if she could not walk, she would die. So, we decided to give her an artificial leg,” said Dr Therdchai.

Dr Therdchai said Mosha was the first elephant in the world to receive an artificial leg and Motala, the second.

“They are the only two elephants in Thailand to receive artificial legs,” he said.

Just like humans, the elephants also experienced wear-and-tear of their artificial limbs.

“Mosha probably has had more than eight legs fitted. She had three legs fitted in the first year alone,” he said.

A pet eagle gets a new artificial leg, thanks to Dr Therdchai Jivacate.
A pet eagle gets a new artificial leg, thanks to Dr Therdchai Jivacate.

Dr Therdchai has also been approached by pet owners to design artificial limbs for their pets. He has designed artificial legs for a dog, a horse and an eagle. It took him three days to make the artificial leg for the pet eagle.

“When we fitted her with an artificial leg, she could fly. Before that, when she tried to walk, her wing would hit the floor,” he said.

He also took three days to make the artificial leg for the dog.

Developing and fitting artificial limbs for the two elephants and a handful of lucky animals were done out of curiosity.

“We want to know whether an animal fitted with an artificial leg would accept and use it. From our work, we found that if the leg was properly made and the animal felt no pain, it would use the artificial limb,” he said.

However, his focus is on developing prosthetic legs for human beings.

Editor's Update: This article has been corrected to properly identify Motala as being born in captivity.  Dr Therdchai confirmed this detail on June 26. The original statement that Motala was born in the wild was based on checks at the Internet Elephant Database. Our thanks to Jody Stickney and Soraida Salwala (of the Elephant Hospital) for spotting the error.

Related story:

Walk of hope for amputees

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