Lucky: a fitting name for an elephant who beat death! She isn’t the loneliest elephant in the world but she is the luckiest!

Why is Lucky the luckiest elephant in the world?

Unlike the world’s loneliest elephant, Kaavan, Lucky hasn’t been serenaded by American singer Cher. But like Kaavan, she was rescued from nightmare circumstances, and brought to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia! In 2003, Lucky was found wandering alone in the forest at only 6 months old. Without her herd, she would not have survived. Lucky was rescued by Wildlife Alliance and brought to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. Lucky grew up to be a happy and healthy adult elephant, forming close bonds with keepers and other rescued elephants. But years later, misfortune struck again – Lucky fell ill with Endotheliotropic Elephant Herpes Virus (EEHV), a life-threatening virus.

How did Lucky beat a deadly virus?

Back in February 2015, Lucky contracted EEHV, a virus fatal to over 90% of elephants. For close to a year, Lucky’s keeper and life-long companion Sitheng never left her side, even to visit his own family, who instead came to visit him at Phnom Tamao!

Lucky received around the clock care from dedicated elephant keepers at Phnom Tamao. Throughout her battle with EEHV, Lucky’s brave and trusting spirit won through! She allowed keepers and veterinary staff to treat her, including with corticosteroid. This strong medication of steroid hormones was injected into the large veins in her ears.  These injections saved Lucky’s life.

By Christmas 2015, keepers were still administering 500mg of corticosteroid every other day. In early 2016, one year after her diagnosis, vets declared the all clear. Lucky was finally healthy enough to stop receiving treatment! During her treatment, Lucky ran up quite a bill! Read more about what it took to save Lucky’s life below.

The life of one Lucky Elephant!

Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center team Lucky elephant

1999: Lucky is rescued from the forest at 6 months. She is brought to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. There, head keeper Sitheng bottle feeds her night and day. He quickly becomes Lucky’s life-long guardian and companion. Lucky grows up at Phnom Tamao and gains a reputation as the friendliest elephant around!

2003: Lucky takes up painting for the first time. The rewards-based, positive reinforcement training assures she loves what she does with a paintbrush!

2008: Chhouk is rescued and arrives at Phnom Tamao. Like Lucky, he was found alone in the forest as a calf. Unlike Lucky, he was injured – his foot was caught in a snare. Lucky and Chhouk bond, and in time Lucky becomes his adoptive mother. But Lucky’s bond with Sitheng stays as strong as ever.

2013: Lucky becomes one of the stars of the new Behind The Scenes Tours at Phnom Tamao.  She greets guests on her morning walk in exchange for her favourite fruits. Again, Lucky’s reputation grows, this time for being a playful trickster: she throws dust and water when she doesn’t receive enough attention from guests! (This is normal in the elephant world).

2015: Lucky falls ill with Endotheliotropic Elephant Herpes Virus. She receives around the clock care from Sitheng and the other elephant keepers. Lucky retreats from public view during her illness and recovery.

2017: Lucky turns 18!:

2019: Lucky turns 20 and makes a comeback as the star of the short-lived elephant show.

2020: Lucky takes up her paintbrush once again!

Elephant facts

How much does it cost to save an elephant?

During her year of treatment, Lucky racked up quite a bill. Her care came in at over $40,000. For context, our monthly food bill for 1,300 animals comes in at upwards of $10,000. Lucky’s treatment was made possible by many generous donors. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts for their support, especially during the first critical stages of her illness.

Elephant Trunks crop

While it came at a high price, the life of this magnificent and endangered animal is priceless.  Lucky is an incredible animal that continues to inspire us all.  We are happy to have her back to her old cheeky self, once again throwing dirt and water at visitors when she doesn’t get enough attention from them. But that’s not the end of Lucky’s story…

How much do elephants eat?

Lucky the elephant browses for food on her walks around Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre

Lucky the elephant browses for food on her walks around Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre

  • Elephants are big eaters! Asian Elephants can eat 100kg of food per day.
  • In the wild, elephants spend 80% of their day feeding.
  • Lucky has lived at Phnom Tamao for most of her life, but she still has the instinct to browse for food. When taking her walks with Sitheng, she can be seen picking the newest growth and shoots from treetops!

How much does it cost to feed an elephant?

At Phnom Tamao, feeding our herd of four elephants is one of our biggest costs. Besides their medical costs which can run into the thousands, the cost of feeding our elephants are second only to the tigers who require a meat-based diet.

  • Our monthly food bill for all 1,300 animals is upwards of $10,000. To feed Lucky, Chhouk, Jamran and Sakor is 10% of this, at around $1,000.

Even the luckiest elephants never forget

…or perhaps we should say, Lucky’s immune system did not forget. While she recovered from the deadly EEHV virus, the illness took a toll on her immune system. This means that Lucky is vulnerable to minor infections, which are treated as they come up.

A new life for Lucky the painting elephant

During her early years, Lucky learned how to paint! Keepers at Phnom Tamao used rewards-based, positive reinforcement training to encourage Lucky to put brush to paper, or whatever else was around! Her favourite thing to paint became tshirts!

Lucky the elephant painting t shirts

Lucky loves to paint tshirts!

Lucky came to love these painting sessions. Interspersed with her favourite fruity snacks, Lucky was only too happy to oblige!

How do you teach an elephant to paint?

Lucky loves watermelon in exchange for her painting skills

Lucky loves watermelon in exchange for her painting skills

After a brush stroke, Lucky receives a food reward that is not part of her main diet, such as a watermelon treat. Lucky continues to paint, but only if she chooses to. Being the attention seeker that she is, Lucky usually continues to paint, in exchange for her favourite fruits and veggies!

2013: Lucky is the star of the show!

Lucky with Sitheng

Lucky takes her morning walk with Sitheng

In 2013, we launched an exciting new experience at Phnom Tamao: our exclusive Behind The Scenes tours. The tour offers guests the chance to get up close and personal with some of the 1,300 animals, while raising vital funds for the care of these animals.

Again, Lucky was right where she wanted to be: at the centre of the action! Lucky was one of the main attractions on these tours, greeting guests right out of the mini van while taking her morning walk with Sitheng.

2015-2018 Lucky takes a break from public life

Lucky’s stardom came to an end during her battle with EEHV. During her year of treatment and the 2 years following, we didn’t want to add any extra weight on Lucky’s shoulders.

Lucky’s comeback… to the canvas!

But by 2019, Lucky indicated that she was ready to return to the limelight!

Before too long, Lucky was again greeting guests – and painting their T-shirts! As before, Lucky’s participation was strictly up to her. The tasty treats she receives and “trunk ups” are a sure sign that she loves  what she does with a paintbrush.

2020: Covid strikes… and Lucky goes back to the drawing board!

Lucky painting (low res)

Lucky loves to paint!

In 2020, Lucky’s world was turned upside down by another virus: Covid-19. The pandemic closed borders and ground flights around the world. International travel was at a standstill, meaning  only a fraction of arrivals to the Behind the Scenes tours, and a huge drop in revenue for Phnom Tamao. While no animal goes without and we are still proud to boast that no rescued animal is turned away, we do miss the funds that the tours brought us. Not Lucky. She misses the attention!

Lucky the elephant is a little lonely

Since tour guests stopped arriving, Lucky has been feeling a little lonely. To fill this gap in her routine and provide her some more enrichment, we started to get creative with her! Lucky is taking up her paintbrush again. This time, she’s turning out masterpieces on canvas!

Lucky loves the activity and the resulting treats. We hope you love her creations!

Unique artwork – from a painting elephant!

Since taking up painting again, Lucky is on a roll! Browse Lucky’s gallery, and see what catches your eye. Nothing take your fancy? You can commission your very own Lucky painting, selecting colors and canvas size. For inspiration see her archive. Each painting is unique and stamped with Lucky’s very own monogram. Through the purchase of Lucky’s one-of-a-kind artwork, you are directly supporting the care of Lucky and over 1,300 other animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade in Cambodia.