Meet the Man Making Giant Prosthetics for Elephants

Therdchai Jivacate usually makes prosthetics for smaller creatures, but when he saw 200 kg elephant with a missing leg, he knew he had to help.

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Jun 17 2016, 12:15pm

Mosha with her prosthetic. Image: Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation

Therdchai Jivacate is a Thai surgeon, inventor, and master prosthetics maker specializing in artificial legs. Over the course of his career, he has made over 20,000 prosthetic legs for everything from dogs and cats to birds and impoverished humans.

But one day, when he caught sight of Mosha, a tame two and a half-year-old Asian elephant who'd lost her right foreleg from a landmine explosion at the Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation, he decided to take on his biggest challenge yet: He would make Mosha a fake leg so she could regain her mobility.

"When I saw Mosha, I noticed that she had to keep raising her trunk into the air in order to walk properly. At the time, she weighed around 600 kg and she was putting two thirds of her body weight onto her left foreleg, which was causing it to become bent," Jivacate told me over the phone.

Jivacate had never made a prosthetic leg to an elephant's scale before, and admitted that it took a process of trial and error before he and his team of helpers and vets at the Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital eventually made a fake foreleg that Mosha could use with ease. The main challenges, said Jivacate, were posed by the design and the biomechanics as the team had to build a comfortable socket that Mosha's stump would slot into, as well as get the correct alignment between the socket and her foot so she could walk properly.

Making the prosthetic. Image: Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation

"We knew that she wouldn't use the prosthetic leg if it caused her pain," said Jivacate. "At first, she was curious about what was attached to her stump and tried to remove the prosthetic with her trunk, but we'd secured it tightly," said Jivacate.

Jivacate and his team made Mosha's prosthetic leg—which weighed roughly 15 kg—from thermoplastic, steel, and elastomer. It took Mosha 12 hours to learn how to walk with the fake leg when she first tried it, and the team had to adjust the alignment of the socket and her fake foot around five to six times until they struck an axis that afforded Mosha fluid movement.

In the past six years, Mosha has gone through nine prosthetic forelegs that can cope with her increasing weight and size.

"Mosha grows fast," chuckled Jivacate. "In the first year, she went through three prosthetic legs."

Mosha currently weighs around 2,000 kg, and as a consequence, her artificial foreleg needs to be heavier and stronger. Jivacate said that the team were still in the pursuit of a perfect prosthetic with materials that were more durable and resistant to wear.

In the meantime, Jivacate is happy that he has been able to do his bit to help Mosha walk again on all fours.

"Animals don't ask that we make legs for them, but we wanted to give Mosha one," said Jivacate. "I think she knows that I make her prosthetic legs as each time I come to the elephant hospital she makes a little salute by raising her trunk in the air."

Another elephant uses one of Therdchai Jivacate's prosthetics. Image: Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation