Times are tough for one of Thailand's biggest national symbols: the elephant. Over the past two decades, elephants and their owners have drifted into the cities to beg, after a ban on logging left them unemployed.
In northeast Thailand's Surin province, an ethnic group famed for its skill in working with elephants is helping to get the animals out of the cities.
The sound of a buffalo horn summons members of the Kui ethnic minority to a pakam, or shrine. In the old days, Kui would offer prayers here before trekking off to the jungles of Cambodia to catch wild elephants. But that was a long time ago.
Meu Sala-Ngarm, 82, is one the last of the Kui morchang, or elephant masters. He says he has been mostly employed since 1957, when the government banned the capture of wild elephants in order to protect them. But to this day, he says elephants are the only animals he knows and is interested in.
"When I was young, my parents told me I could get by without anything except elephants," he recalls. "They're rare. They're not like cars or cattle. They roam in the jungle. It takes three months to catch one. You have to take 100 people and 50 domesticated elephants to catch a wild one."
Meu has caught more than 50 wild elephants, making him a kru ba, the highest rank among morchang. The morchang have their own clothes and their own language. They rode on elephants' shoulders, steering left and right with their legs. Wild elephants were hard to lasso, Meu says, but they're smart and domesticating them was easy.
"There's no real difference between wild elephants and domesticated ones," he says matter-of-factly, "except for their smell. The wild elephants have a particular, natural smell, but the domesticated elephants acquire a human smell on their skin. Wild elephants find that a bit strange."
Building An 'Elephant Kingdom'
For centuries, elephants caught by the Kui were symbols of royal power. They carried Siamese kings into battle and hauled valuable teak wood from tropical forests. But more than two decades ago, the government banned logging, and elephants and their handlers, known as mahouts, have drifted into the cities to beg.
In recent years, the government of Surin province has launched an "Elephant Kingdom" project to get the elephants out of the cities and back to the countryside, where the Kui are expert at raising them.
The project centers on Ta Klang village, near the confluence of the Chi and Mun rivers -- a favorite elephant bathing spot. The region is home to about 600 elephants. In Ta Klang, elephants and humans live together, the pachyderms in pens outside the Kui's wooden houses, which sit on stilts to avoid flooding during the monsoon months.
The project pays mahouts the equivalent of $265 a month for each elephant that they keep out of the cities. Krittipon Sala-Ngarm, who manages the village's elephant study center and is a distant relative of Meu Sala-ngarm, says he realizes this is not much money.
"I personally disagree with taking elephants into the city like beggars," says Krittipon, the son of a morchang. "But I understand why mahouts feel they need to do it. They can't survive on the monthly payments. They have to import elephant food from other provinces every two days."
Elephants consume hundreds of pounds of vegetation and dozens of gallons of water a day, and mahouts therefore have a tough time making ends meet. The Elephant Kingdom project is replanting farmland around the village with grass, and in five years, Krittipon predicts, it should have enough for the elephants to eat.
In the meantime, elephants make money performing for tourists, painting, kicking soccer balls and throwing darts at balloons.
Theerapon Homhuan, a 38-year-old mahout, has brought his elephants back to the village after years of roaming through cities. There, he sold amulets made from pieces of ivory that had fallen off or trimmed from elephants' trunks. Theerapon concludes from his experience that elephants just don't thrive in concrete jungles.
"In the city, elephants are uncomfortable," he says, squatting next to one of his elephants. "They disturb the urban residents, which worries me. Back here, they're comfortable because they can move freely and they're in their natural environment. They can bathe and live without stress."
Theerapon and his neighbors live with three generations of elephants. The grandmother elephant is 68. She has two children and one grandchild. Theerapon says that when they're happy, he's happy.
"I consider elephants a part of my family," he says. "If they are absent I feel like I've lost an arm or leg. We have been together for so long, when I have business to attend to and I leave them one or two days, I always miss them."
Despite all the changes that modernity has brought, the Kui and their elephants still live intertwined and overlapping lives. Theerapon fondly remembers the first elephant he ever cared for, noting with satisfaction that it lived to the ripe old age of 105. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.