By Ian Williams, NBC News Correspondent
PHNOM TAMAO, Cambodia – "I really thought he would never make it," said Nick Marx, stroking Chhouk's trunk with a sense of pride and affection.
"He was seriously injured. He was extremely young, emaciated and very, very sick."
Chhouk, a bull elephant now 5 years old, was found in the Cambodian jungle in 2007, alone and close to death, his left front foot mangled by a poacher's trap.
Marx, the Director of Wildlife Rescue and Care at the Wildlife Alliance, a conservation group, was one of the first to the scene, nursing Chhouk in the jungle for a week.
"I stayed with him, slept beside him, hand-fed him everything he ate.”
Chhouk was taken to the Cambodian government's Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, outside Phnom Penh, and nursed back to health.
"The damage was severe," Marx says. "He's lost six to eight inches of his leg."
A baby elephant gets a new leg: Conservationists didn't think that Chhouk would survive after having a foot ripped apart by a trap in Cambodia, but thanks to a prosthetic limb, the pachyderm is thriving.
Marx turned to experts at the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics, who'd learned their skills during the terrible conflicts (and landmine legacy) that once afflicted this part of Asia. They'd never tried anything on this scale before.
"It's a kind of plastic resin. The inside is quite soft, and the outside is very hard," Marx told me, as Chhouk's keepers removed the artificial foot for its daily cleaning, a procedure that the young elephant has now gotten used to, lifting his leg into a small
compartment for the keepers to work on.
Though now his keepers have to exercise more care. Chhouk's entering the equivalent of jumbo adolescence. He's getting a bit of attitude. "We've certainly got to be more cautious," said Marx, who can read the elephant's mood better than anybody.
Then he was into the forest with Lucky, an older elephant that seems to have adopted the youngster. On the narrow path, then playing in a small lake, he seemed comfortable and confident.
"It's changed his life," says Marx. "From being a tired little chap who slept a lot when he went on his walks, he's now lively and energetic. He never stops.”
He's now on his fourth prosthetic leg, because of heavy wear, but also because Chhouk is growing up fast.
He's become the best known resident – and a symbol of resilience – at Phnom Tamao, which is maintained by the Wildlife Alliance and supported by the Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. The rescue center now houses more than 1,000 animals, ranging from elephants to tigers, gibbons, bears and birds, many of which, like Chhouk, arrived close to death.
"We've rescued so many animals from the illegal wildlife trade – an incredibly cruel business. All of them would be dead without us," says Marx.
Ian Williams/ NBC News
The elephant Chhouk lefts his prosthetic
leg at the conservation camp in Cambodia.
Where possible, animals once healthy are returned to the wild.
When we think about organized crime, the first thing that comes to mind tends to be drugs, or perhaps arms smuggling or human trafficking. Yet the illegal wildlife trade is thought to be the biggest illicit global business after drugs. It’s estimated to be worth between $5 billion and $20 billion annually.
"It's decimating the world's forests," says Marx.
Asia has become a center for the trade. China is the biggest market for endangered and protected animals, destined for the cooking pot or for folk medicine. The United States is reckoned to be the second largest market, though the demand there is largely for exotic pets.
There are thought to be 300 to 500 elephants left in the wild in Cambodia, threatened by poaching and a loss of habitat. Youngsters like Chhouk are prized by entertainment venues which often keep them in appalling conditions.
Chhouk will never be able to return to the wild, but can at least now live a reasonably full life in the rescue center, where his story serves as inspiration, but also a warning – raising awareness of the terrible threats to the region's wildlife.