The Kui, translating to ‘the people’, are an ethnic minority in Thailand that have traditionally made their living from capturing wild elephants and disdained conventional work. Having no alphabet or written language, Kui is closely related to Mon-Khmer and also has a special ‘forest spirit language’ used only when capturing wild elephants in the forest.
The Kui are concentrated in the village of Ban Ta Klang in Surin province, village leadership and administration are closely associated with the elephant shaman, and the local economy to the elephant. The village has long been known for its role in capturing wild elephants to be sold onward for war or heavy labour. The Kui of Ban Ta Klang caught an average of 20 to 30 elephants annually during the rainy season and farmed the rest of the year. The Kui caught their last elephant in Thailand in 1970 and have been keeping them as pets ever since.
The Kui are the victims of well-documented environmental decline. Destruction of their natural environment through deforestation has reduced the province to less than 7% forest cover. Their homeland has been turned from rich forest and grassland into one endless rice field dotted with eucalyptus plantations. With not enough food or income to feed their elephants, these once proud hunters have been reduced to wandering the streets of Thailand’s cities.
As a minority struggling to survive against a dominant culture, the environmental decline has brought a parallel deterioration in traditional culture with the Kui absorbing both Thai and Khmer culture and language. Men whose fathers once captured elephants communally now actively keep secrets from each other about training methods and work opportunities. The young men have little concern for magic and ritual and the last solid traditional knowledge resides in the memories of a few Kui elders.
Environmental and economic threats are warping the demographics, economics, and culture of elephant keeping much faster than those threats can even be understood, much less be practically managed so as to avoid ill effects on elephants.