Birds of a royal feather
The royal fighting cock was once the pride of the northern province of Phitsanulok and one dedicated vet is trying to preserve the purest breed of all, because not just any cock will doodle-do
It is as though Sai Thong knew it had been blessed by Mother Nature. The two-year-old rooster, head held high and chest out, boasts a perfectly shaped scarlet crest and wattle, elegant yellow feathers and long white tail, slightly curled at the tip. Its crow, loud and clear, fills the air, making its presence felt. Sai Thong also has vigorous wings and strong legs that allow it to move fast, and its sharp spurs are a most powerful weapon that can blind its opponents.
Known in Thai simply as kai lueng hang khao (literally "yellow chicken with a white tail"), Sai Thong is of a very special breed, blessed with beauty and grace, strength and a fighting spirit. It is believed that he belongs to a superior clan of royal fighting cocks once popular during the Ayutthaya period.
Some even go as far as praising its ancestor, believed to have been kept by King Naresuan the Great, for its "heroic act" of defeating the Royal Burmese fighting cock. Some historical records state that the king, who was born in Chan palace in Phitsanulok, had a passion for cock fighting, and he had brought with him his favourite pet when taken prisoner by the Burmese. The Thai cock is said to have "often conquered" its Burmese opponents.
Unfortunately, only few people today know about this most accomplished fighter. Worse still, inbreeding and cross breeding has resulted in an ever-increasing population of the hybrid. A pure breed has become a rarity.
One person has been working hard to reinstate the kai lueng hang khao in its rightful place.
Kai lueng hang khao was then named after King Naresuan the Great-Phra Naresuan the Great fighting cock. That title is the brainchild of Dr Nisit Tangtrakarnpong, whose attempt is to restore the kai lueng hang khao to its native Phitsanulok province.
The vet has launched several long-term conservation campaigns. His string of achievements include the establishment of the Phra Naresuan the Great Fighting Cock Conservation Clubs in 12 districts throughout the province with some 450 members, and the achievement of developing the pure breed of kai lueng hang khao. "Our main purpose is to develop, reproduce, and keep the pure breed as the national legacy. Besides, chicken farmers can raise the fowl for commercial purposes," he said.
His inspiration to bring the kai lueng hang khao back to Phitsanulok took shape some 30 years ago.
"I learned from many fighting cock devotees that the birds were once teeming in the area. I was also impressed by their heroic acts after reading several historical records. And I would like to return the brave creature to my local community," said Dr Nisit who was granted the 1995 Exemplary Veterinarian Award from the Veterinary Association of Thailand in the field of social services. Dr Nisit enriched himself with a wealth of information on kai lueng hang khao through various means.
"I read as much as I could. Old villagers were also my key informants. I also went to Wat Suwandararam in Ayutthaya where the mural paintings feature fighting scenes between the Thai and the Burmese roosters [one belongs to King Naresuan and the other to the Burmese king]," he said. In those days, the fighting cock was an integral part of the royal sport and also the old, popular form of entertainment among the noblemen, according to Dr Nisit.
"There were only two species of the fighting cock in ancient times, some 500 years ago, namely, pra doo hang dumand kai lueng hang khao," explained the vet. The fighting sport has long been woven into the local way of life. The combat between two robust roosters is currently a favourite form of amusement in rural areas. In addition, newer varieties of the creature have long been developed with the same mission-to breed the most perfect fighting cock. According to Dr Nisit, Ban Krang is the birthplace of kai lueng hang khao. Villagers there still practise the traditional game of cock fighting on festive occasions. "Ninety-year-old Chit Phet-orn, who is a regular fan at the fighting cock gambling house, told me that Ban Krang once was popular for its fighting cocks, often the winners of the matches. And villagers of the new generation are taught that kai lueng hang khao is a dignified animal belonging to the royal family," explained Dr Nisit.
But no one could define the exact traits of the creature. The opportune time came when the celebration of the 400th Anniversary Ascension to the Throne of King Naresuan the Great was held in the province in 1990. As part of the festive activities, Dr Nisit conducted a fighting cock competition as a way to find the perfect fowl and record all prominent characteristics.
His initiative resulted in immense feedback from the chicken owners. "Unbelievably, some 633 fighting cocks joined the contest. That meant we could select more fine fowls. I thoroughly recorded some 30 specific traits," said the vet.
But over the three decades of inter and cross-breeding, the population of hybrid birds outnumber those of the pure breed. Therefore, Dr Nisit's mammoth task is to breed these hybrid creatures to find the pure breed. "To preserve the pure breed, we need to find more fowls that carry all good traits of the Phra Naresuan the Great fighting cock and then reproduce and make the species intact," explained Dr Nisit.
In 1992, Dr Nisit bought 70 hens and 20 roosters for his breeding experiment. He also set up the fighting cock conservation clubs in several communities and distributed those birds to start the trial.
Dr Nisit also wrote a book entitled Kai Chon Phra Naresuan Maharaja (Phra Naresuan the Great Fighting Cock). The 117-page pocket-book compiles different topics relevant to the fowl like the legend of the fighting cock, its characteristics, diseases, and how to train the young rooster. The Phra Naresuan the Great fighting cock currently is popular among fighting-cock connoisseurs and is a hot commodity in the animal markets. With higher demand from local and foreign markets, fighting-cock farming is a lucrative business in several districts of Phitsanulok, generating a hefty income for many local people. "Thanks to the creature, villagers can bring in more money. We have a better life. As my chicken business becomes lucrative, more and more villagers follow suit," said Somkid Khumchai, whose fowls are considered one of the purest breeds by many fighting cock admirers. Several farms in Phitsanulok province now welcome numerous fighting-cock fans a day. Those exemplary roosters are sold for a princely sum.
"A young chick is priced at 5,000 baht. The price for a mature bird soars to 10,000 baht," said Somkid. According to Dr Nisit, chicken farmers hold many beliefs when it comes to the preparation of making the nest for newborn chicks. Several items are placed under the nest, including a piece of broken wood struck by thunderbolt, the shedded skin of a snake, gold, a bamboo pole used to carry baskets on either end, broken naturally, and Cynodon dactylon or yaa prak (a kind of grass). "Each different thing carries different meanings. The piece of broken wood is believed to make the fowl hit its opponent accurately and powerfully. The snake skin can make the shins of the creature poisonous. Gold brightens the colour of the feathers. And the shoulder pole can help the rooster subdue the opponent. And after being beaten black and blue the cock can recover easily like the grass," explained Dr Nisit.
To keep developing the breed, Dr Nisit frequently visits each chicken farm and exchanges knowledge with fighting-cock connoisseurs. His future plans include the inauguration of the Phra Naresuan the Great Fighting Cock Association of Thailand and patenting the breed.
"Now we are trying to keep the blood lineage. My ultimate goal is to breed the pedigree. Kai lueng hang khao is part of our country's history. And to keep the creature alive is to keep history alive," said Dr Nisit.