The World’s First Bionic Elephants

Baby Mosha toddles around on her prosthesis.

Back in the fall, I wrote a short post about The Eyes of Thailand, a new documentary film about two elephants, Motala and Mosha, who were injured when they stepped on landmines. The pachyderms, who each ended up losing a front leg, came into the care of Soraida Salwala at the Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) Hospital in Lampang, Thailand. The movie chronicles Salwala’s quest to build prosthetic legs for the elephants.

The movie had its world premiere on April 28, at the Newport Beach Film Festival. A few days later, I spoke with Windy Borman, the film’s director and producer. A lightly edited version of our discussion follows.

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EA: What attracted you to this story?

WB: I’m sort of an accidental elephant person. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for animals. I was traveling to Thailand in 2007, and I was actually there for a different video project. I wandered into the elephant hospital with camera and it just so happened that Soraida, the founder of the elephant hospital, was there. She sat down and talked with me for two hours, said “Come meet the elephants.” I just fell in love with Motala and Mosha, two elephant landmine survivors. And Soraida is just such an inspiring person. I knew I couldn’t leave the story.

At that point they’d saved the elephants’ lives but they didn’t know if they’d be able to help them walk again. But in 2009, I got an email from Soraida saying, “The elephants are getting their legs in two weeks. Can you be here?” And I said yes.

EA: Where are these elephants encountering landmines?

WB: Thailand has land mines on its side of the border, along the borders with Cambodia and Burma. But Thailand has signed the mine ban treaty so they aren’t planting any more landmines. And they’re funding a program to go through and remove them.

Burma, on their side of the border, they have landmines there from old skirmishes with Thailand. Burma’s actually one of four countries that’s actively using landmines. So you’ve got the government using them against the rebels, the rebels using them against the government, and then you’ve got an endangered species that’s walking through the forest and not sure whether they’re on the Thai or Burmese side of the border. That’s where the landmine accidents are happening.

EA: How did Motala and Mosha end up at the elephant hospital?

WB: Motala stepped on a landmine in 1999 [on the Burma side of the border]. Initially her owner abandoned her in the forest because he had no idea what to do. Then some other elephant owners told him about Soraida’s elephant hospital, which had opened a couple years before. So he went back for her and helped her walk down a mountain for three days until she could get to a checkpoint to get back into Thailand. But then he didn’t have his papers so the border guards wouldn’t let him in. So Motala had to stay in the back of the truck–and she was bleeding and slipping in and out of consciousness–until he came back with his papers and they were able to drive into Thailand. And then it was a couple more hours until they got to the elephant hospital.

This was the first elephant landmine survivor that the hospital had ever seen. So they were really learning as they were going. Eventually a human orthopedist came forward and said, “I don’t know anything about treating elephants, but I treat human landmine survivors and help build prosthesis for them. So I’m at your service. I’ll help.” They were able to do a surgery for her to remove the dead tissue and amputate the broken part of her leg. And it was just a matter of trying to help her wounds heal and build up some strength for her to try to walk again. But if they were going to build a prosthetic for her, it had to be really strong because she was really heavy. So there wasn’t really any technology or materials available.

In 2006, another elephant stepped on a landmine, and that’s baby Mosha. She was only 7 months old when she was injured. Her owner took her and her mother to the elephant hospital because he heard about how they were able to save Motala’s life. They were able to help the baby, and the mother eventually had to leave and go back to work. So baby Mosha stayed at the hospital. But she healed a lot quicker because she was younger. They were able to build the world’s first elephant prosthetic for her in 2008. Then they said, “Well, we figured out the system and the materials, so let’s see if we can do it for Motala.”

So that’s when I went back to film the two day leg building process. And that was really amazing. Because this is not some high-tech shop where they’re pouring things into molds. It was like an episode of Mythbusters or MacGyver. It was like, “Ok, we’re going to take a truck engine, a pickup truck liner, some pantyhose, and a toothpick.”

EA: So how did they make the prosthesis?

Motala sticks her stump into the sandcast so the doctors can make a mold of her leg.

WB: The way they made the cast was through a technique called sandcasting. [The orthopedist] developed this sort of like big beanbag almost, but it’s filled with sand and it’s connected to a vaccuum at the bottom. When you put a stump or limb into it, you can suck the air out of sand and it keeps the form solid for you. So they built this huge sandcast, and then they sucked the air out. And then they poured plaster into the negative space within the mold.

Then they pulled that out and were able to build the padding and cover that with Maxliner, which is what they use to cover the floor of pickup trucks in back. And then they added Velcro straps and did a whole bunch of welding to add a metal rod and then a footpad. And they actually made an ankle joint of out a car engine. Like it needed some sort of give to it, so that way it wouldn’t just jam the bottom of Motala’s stump every time she takes a step. So it has some kind of ground reaction.

The mold of Motala's stump.

That was a two day process to just make the cast. It was a really anxious time. Because the prosthesis builders had never built a prosthesis this big. So they had no idea whether it was going to be able to hold her weight. And the staff of the elephant hospital were anxious because they could go through all this effort, and if it was painful or something, the elephant wouldn’t wear it. She might just kick it off. There was definitely a lot of anxiety. But I can tell you, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life when I saw her take her first steps. The faces of everybody who was there and worked so hard—I mean, they just were elated. And several people were crying tears of joy. It was pretty amazing.

Motala takes her first steps on her prosthesis.

EA: Can they walk at all without the prostheses?

WB: They can. It was easier for Mosha when she was smaller to sort of wobble around on three legs. But for both of them, they’re missing a front leg. And so elephants, two-thirds  of their body weight is on the front on their body. In Motala’s case, she weighs over 6,000 pounds. So she’s got 4,000 pounds on the front of her body. And if that’s only on one leg, it’s really difficult for her to move around. The other worry was that because of the extra weight, the other leg was starting to bend and warp. And Mosha, because she was still growing, her bones were still really soft. So they were very worried that if anything happened to that other front leg, that would be the end of it. They’d probably have to put the elephant down. So it really was a life or death venture.

EA: The movie has now premiered. How did it go and what sort of reactions have you gotten?

WB: The world premiere was fantastic. As a filmmaker, it never really feels like a film until an audience sees it. People laughed and cried and they clapped when baby Mosha was able to walk on her prosthesis. Everybody was really engaged. We had a lot of people stay after for the question and answer. And you could just tell they were really engaged and wanted to learn more.

The film combines two different issues. You’ve got the elephant or the animal people on one side who are coming at it from an animal welfare perspective, but then you’ve got the social and environmental people who are coming at the film from a landmine removal perspective. It was really great to get both of those audiences in the same room. Because I’m convinced that if they work together, then we could actually make some real change. I think the biggest surprise for everyone was just learning that the US is one of 37 countries that has not signed that mine ban treaty. Every time that come up, you would always hear a frustrated sigh.

Somebody asked me, “What do you want us to take away from the film?” And separately from, “We need to protect Asian elephants,” and “We want to encourage other countries to sign the mine ban treaty,” the film really forces you to look at what people are telling you is impossible. Because 10 years ago it was considered impossible to build a prosthetic for an elephant. They’ve been able to prove that not only is it possible, but the elephants are thriving. And at that point, there’s not really an excuse for the rest of us. The other obstacles in our lives, they don’t seem as big.

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The film is being shown this week at the International Wildlife Film Festival. Borman is still looking for a distribution deal, but to look for screenings in your area, check out www.eyesofthailand.com.

You can donate to the FAE Elephant Hospital, via PayPal, through the hospital’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/FAEHospital

Photos: All photos courtesy Windy Borman.

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