Cambodian elephants can be distinguished from their African counterparts by their smaller ears, Yun Mane, a young law student of the Phnong minority, explained recently from Mondulkiri province.
These elephants are endangered, just as the traditions of the Phnong people are.
The Phnong's traditional use of elephants to clear forests and for transportation is declining, as the monetary value of elephants increase. Many Phnong, who are short of food and money, sell their elephants to companies in Siem Reap, where they are used transport tourists around Angkor Wat, Yun Mane told VOA Khmer recently.
"The elephant is the animal we love the most because it helps transport wood from the forests to help us build homes, and rice from the fields, and fruits and vegetables from farms," she said. "Our people do not rely on motorcycles or bicycles, because, in the forests and on the mud paths, when there is heavy rain and flooding, the elephant is the most reliable of all.''
As a child Yun Mane rode her elephant into Vietnam to bring back food and herbal medicine. But she sold her elephant several years ago to help her family and help pay for her education. Phnong are historically known as expert elephant captors. In their religion, the Phnong pray to elephant gods for good health, abundant harvests and safe journeys. The Phnong are forbidden to kill or eat the animals. A domestic elephant is honored in death with th same traditional funeral burial as a human.
''When an elephant dies, the Phnong do not eat the dead elephant," Yun Mane said. "A few Phnong might, but very few. The elephant is considered sacred, even in death. We bury a deceased elephant, especially the elephant that I personally love."
Melbourne scientists plan to run DNA tests on elephant dung sent from Cambodia to help work out numbers and monitor wild populations. Rangers have collected almost 600 samples of elephant dung from the Cardamom Mountains in the country's southwest.
Elephant biologist Joe Hefferman said getting a more accurate picture of population size would help conservationists work out how many elephants were being poached.