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An elephant’s story

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Posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 5:21 pm

Sometimes a man's calling is greater than the tasks that stand between him and it. Purpose often hides behind reason, as Ed Story discovered decades ago.

Early in his career, more than 40 years ago, Story fell in love with an Asia that was not a popular stomping ground for the average American. Today, Story is a successful entrepreneur in that region as president and CEO of oil exploration business SOCO International; like his professional endeavors, his patronage for the Asian people, and Asian elephant, reaches beyond borders.

While exploring Southeast Asia's Golden triangle - the fusion of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos - Story identified a need in the Hmong village of Laos - kerosene. In the late 60s, he became instrumental in helping provide the fuel villagers needed to light their lamps. While there, Story stumbled over another, unexpected predicament.

Elephants, he discovered, were suffering through massive deforestation and exploitation. Put to work on the streets of Bangkok and other Thai cities, elephants were captured and used to transport logs until the practice was outlawed in the late 80s. After that, captive elephants were used to entertain tourists, who gladly paid fees for rides, unaware of the elephants' history. The main source of income and only way of life for many Thai families, Story sought a way to break the cycle - to help both human, and elephant.

Elephant conservation groups began to emerge throughout Thailand to help with the plight of the Asian elephant - now an endangered species - and return them to their natural habitat. A delicate balance, activists must work to rehabilitate the handlers, as well as the elephants. Otherwise the great mammals will continue to be removed from the forests faster than they can be returned.

“You need to take the Mahouts [elephant owners] off the street in order to take the elephant off the street,” Story said.

Enter the tiny town of Comfort.

Despite his international lifestyle, Story, a U.T. graduate, returned to his Texas roots, with his wife Joey - a native Kentuckian - by his side. Together, they opened The Elephant Story, a unique shop on High Street in Comfort's historical district. Filled with Asian inventory collected by the Storys, many fabrics and gifts are handmade by the families that care for the elephants, and 99 percent of the items have an elephant theme. Net profits from the store are directed to the Asian elephant conservation efforts.

Also instrumental in the elephant conservation effort is the World Elephant Polo Association. Recognized by the International Trust for Nature Conservation and the World Wildlife Fund, WEPA donates funds to help educate villagers, detract poaching and fund health clinics. An elephant polo enthusiast, Story and his family each year participate in The World Elephant Polo Tournament, played in Nepal. Two of his three daughters are very active in the sport; one is the captain of the polo team.

“The reason for the tournament is to help protect the elephant,” Story said, adding WEPA has raised one-half-million dollars for elephant conservation. “It costs $12,000 a year to support a Mahout and his elephant in a natural habitat.”

To maintain his business, Story travels frequently between posts in West Africa, London, Southeast Asia and Mongolia - Story was awarded the Polar Star Award in recognition for hosting clinics that provide medical care to Mongolians, and he was appointed Honorary Consul to Mongolia for his service as a liaison between the Mongolian and American governments. Fluent in Thai, Story also speaks Japanese, Mongolian and French.

Though necessity often pulls him away from his Comfort home, his heart remains true to his private endeavors - and the elephant.

The Elephant Story is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1 - 5 p.m.

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