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Dying Tradition: The Men Who Catch Baby Elephants

Image of a man with an elephant
Katherine Du/NPR
Image of a man with an elephant
Katherine Du/NPR

On a dry January morning, I set out to find the man who may well be Cambodia's last living elephant catcher.

Elephant catching is a tradition in parts of the country — or perhaps a legend. They say that years ago, men would venture out to lasso a baby elephant and bring the animal back to the village, to live with them and carry their heavy loads. I heard stories about elephant catchers while working as a reporter in Cambodia, covering illegal logging.

Naturally, I was curious. And then I heard that there might be one elephant catcher still alive: a man named Pok Phan, tucked into the far southern corner of the province of Mondulkiri, about 25 miles from the Vietnamese border.

I asked villagers in the area if they knew of him.

"The elephant catchers are dead in this village. In all villages near the capital," said Mahaich Hong. Hong, 38, is a resident of Putang village. He's of the Bunong ethnic group — one of the indigenous peoples of northeastern Cambodia, known for catching elephants. His family has three elephants, which they inherited from his grandparents, who bought them from an elephant catcher in their village decades ago. Tourists pay to ride the animals to the waterfall near his home.

"If any elephant catchers are left alive," Hong told me, "they live in the far north districts, near the forest."

It took me a week and a half to find Pok Phan.

I rode my motorbike from village to village in Mondulkiri province, asking first after living elephant catchers, and then, as the week wore on, about the man named Pok Phan, who lived in a village called Nyuich.

I crashed my motorbike twice on the way there, skidding on ruts from rains months ago. I arrived just on the verge of giving up.

In front of Nyuich, two men stood smoking in front of a dry-season grass fire, gesturing expansively at the village's fallow rice.

"I don't know a Pok Phan," drawled one, leaning on his morotcycle handlebars.

"I'm looking for the elephant catcher, older brother," I said.

"There really isn't anyone named Pok Phan around here, sister," he told me. "Maybe you should keep going."

"But," he said reflectively, as I pulled away, "There is a guy named Pok Phaen around here. And he still has an elephant."

These days, 58-year-old Pok Phan nets fish and farms rice, in a village smoky from nearby forest fires in Mondulkiri province.

He lives in a den of rabbit poachers and rice farmers, hard-boiled Khmer settlers who each drink more than a gallon of rice whiskey a night — or so they say. He and I sat eating mealy tangerines as dusk faded to night. He told me of his elephant, whom he caught in 1995. Her name is Srey Ian, which means "shy woman."

The hardest part about catching her, he says, was dealing with all the superstitions.

You could not pound dry rice into ambok, animal feed, because the motion of a pestle smashing rice is the same motion as an elephant's foot would make if it trampled a man — and that man could be you. You could not wash your clothes when you were in the forest lest the fabric wear thin and offer no protection if the elephant's tusks tried to tear your chest open.

And you could not fight or argue with anyone, least of all those who were to walk into the jungle with you.

"If we fought, so would the forest's wild elephants," Pok Phan told me, motioning with his hands to indicate the clash of tusks. "We would die in the forest."

Twenty men would ride into the forest to catch an elephant — brothers and uncles from all over a village. The morning of departure, they would sacrifice.

"A young chicken or a pig," says Pok Phan. "A peang [jar] of wine. We would ask the forest spirits, Neak Tha, for elephants. For safety and, too, for elephants."

The men reached deep forest on the backs of 10 of their village's strongest elephants. A day brought them to the wild herds. In the 1980s, before the heavy ivory trade, there were more than 200 elephants in Mondulkiri's northern forests.

When they reached the herd of elephants, the men would shout. Those at the front would trumpet on the horns of water buffaloes. The wild elephants would start to run. The men and elephants followed, shouting.

It would take hours before the wild elephants wore down. Some could run for miles in dense brush. Some ran a whole day.

But at some point, perhaps at the base of a mountain or a particularly thick patch, the wild elephants would break ranks, and children would be separated from their parents.

This was the crucial moment. Pok Phan and his team would swing out their lassos and rope the ankles of a baby elephant. The cord would be of braided water buffalo skin — too thick for the baby to break.

Then came the hardest part.

"The mothers would return for their children," says Pok Phan. "Our elephants had to join together to fight them off."

Wild Asian elephants can weigh more than 1,000 pounds and easily lift more than 200 pounds. But Pok Phan cannot remember anyone being hurt in the fights.

"I wasn't afraid," he says. "I rode on the back of an elephant."

They took only one baby elephant in a trip. They lived with it for weeks in the forest, teaching it to walk with them, before bringing it to the village. When they returned, everyone would feast.

"It was pleased, the elephant, to come live among us," says Pok Phan.

In the years that Pok Phan caught elephants, it was a dying craft. No one is sure what ended it — whether it was the Khmer Rouge genocide or simply waves of settlers in Cambodia's north: new people who wouldn't sacrifice to the forest spirits and whose voices drove the elephants into farther reaches.

"In the 1980s we stopped seeing elephants," says Mahaich Hong. "Their prints disappeared. They retreated from us."

The last time anyone remembers the capture of an elephant is in 1996.

Those who work with elephants say this is definitely for the best. Elephants have families, as we do. Biologists in southern Africa write of elephants burying their dead and returning to old graves to caress bones. Elephant families are intricate, matrilineal and hard to separate. When they are split apart, the result is trauma.

The Cambodian Forestry Administration says there are fewer than 20 wild elephants left in Mondulkiri, all in a stretch of lonely woods near Nyuich.

Not everyone has come to terms with the loss of the elephants.

Pok Phan insists that there are more than 20 in the forests not so far from him.

"Thirty or 49, at least. They've just gone into the deeper forests. Far from people."

Pok Phan caught five elephants in his lifetime. He sold four but kept the second to last. Srey Ian lives out back of his brother's house in Sok San, about 10 miles from Nyuich. She's no longer a beast of burden. Gone are the days when elephants carried wood, loads of bananas, for villagers. The most Srey Ian carries is a jar of wine when Pok Phan goes to visit neighbors.

Pok Phan cares for Shy Woman as if she is an old, hungry friend. He sits out behind his cousin's house on long, dry-season evenings. She eats like an elephant, he says — lots. He feeds her bananas and pineapples. She eats her bamboo shoots. He companionably drinks a cold beer.

Romantic poets looked for God in the woods. Pok Phan and the Bunong people of Mondulkiri found something else in the forest: a companion, a presence that mellowed them.

"An elephant knows you," Pok Phan tells me. "You cannot drink or fight when you have an elephant. You can't go to visit pretty girls. The elephant knows. It sleeps in the shade of your house day and night, and it cries."

As night fell in front of the gritty shack, Pok Phan told me one of the oldest Bunong legends.

Elephants once were humans, he said. Then they poisoned a river, killing all the fish. An angry deity turned the people into pachyderms. The fate of the elephants, ever since, has been to live among us and carry our burdens.

In Cambodia now, it isn't rivers that are being poisoned, it's forests — being logged and burned by Khmer and Vietnamese companies to sell the timber and plant rubber in its place. It's a quiet loss — a discrete erasure of certain things from the map, a slow thinning of the forests that used to be deep enough for elephants.

"An elephant has the life of a person," Pok Phan told me. "It knows more than we do."

I wonder what the elephants would have to say about all this. Shy Woman, when I visited her, seemed content — though Pok Phan says her eyes water and burn some mornings from the smoke in the air.

And these days, the wild elephants are too far away to ask.