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Polo Time for Elephants


It is perhaps one of the more bizarre, incongruous, and thoroughly enjoyable sights you might ever see.

Imagine this – a hulking gray elephant trotting in the direction of a goal post. On its neck, a barefoot stick-wielding Thai driver hooting and shouting and urging his elephant on, and on its back, loosely strapped on to a rough burlap sack, a dashing polo player decked out in starched white jodhpurs and pith helmet trying to hit a polo ball with a long and wobbly stick, amidst a tangle of flapping ears and swinging trunks, and big stomping elephant feet.

The first ever Elephant Polo tournament in Thailand was held in September 2002 at the seaside resort town of Hua Hin about 200km away from Bangkok. The Anantara Resort and Spa organised the event with the co-operation of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, the World Elephant Polo Association and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The elephant centre supplied about 11 elephants for the tournament. Three elephants make a team. A team each from Australia, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and two teams from Thailand competed at the stadium of the 16th army regiment. All proceeds from ticket sales, at 500 baht each were donated to the elephant conservation centre.

While some say that the sport originated in 18th-century Mongolia, and while it was definitely played by maharajas in India in the 1930s, the most recent version of elephant polo dates back only a decade.

Saddling up for Polo

One evening in the bar of the St. Moritz Cresta Club in Switzerland, James Manclark, a former British bobsled champion and an international polo player, was participating in a grand tradition of clubs everywhere – the razzing of a new member.

This particular new member was Jim Edwards, owner of Tiger Tops Lodge in Nepal. As Manclark remembers, ”My wife pulled me over and said, ‘You want to be nice to that man. He owns elephants.’ I then proposed that we use them for polo. And the rest is history.”

Manclark and Edwards thrashed out a draft of elephant-polo rules that very night, with Edwards still thinking that Manclark was kidding. Later, back in Nepal, Edwards received a telegram: ARRIVING KATHMANDU APRIL 1. HAVE LONG STICKS. GET ELEPHANTS READY.

Thus was born the first game of elephant polo in recent times. The matches were successful enough that the players formed the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) in 1982.

Elephant polo is like regular polo (usually played on horses), except it’s a lot slower. Elephants are “driven” by their lifelong trainers, called mahouts, who sit on their necks.

Players sit behind the drivers – aiming their extra-long, eight-foot bamboo mallets at a standard polo ball toward goals on either end of the field. To avoid having the players fall off the elephants and get trampled, they’re harnessed to the massive beasts. The elephant’s jolting stride makes for a very bumpy ride!

An announcer calls the plays to the crowd of several hundred which enjoys cheering on the dung carriers, also known as ‘pooper scoopers’. Play is interrupted now and again when the team of women run onto the field to pick up the unwanted piles with their bare hands.

Which one is the elephant?

To make everything as fair as possible, elephants are traded at half-time. Each team has three elephants, which often enthusiastically disregard the game’s rules. These include: they may not lie down in front of goals; they may not pick up the ball with their trunks during play; and they may not trade their sugar cane snacks for players’ beers during half-time.

Lest hackles be raised, it should be pointed out that the World Wildlife Fund has declared that the sport poses no threat to the elephants used in the games. Elephants, however, clip along at eight mph during play, and therefore the sport is not without danger for humans.

The only restraint holding a player on an elephant’s back is a rope that encircles the rider’s waist and the elephant’s midsection. Because play requires the rider to constantly lean horizontally and because the laws of gravitational pull are the same in Thailand as they are elsewhere in the world, the ropes continuously loosen throughout the course of a match.

After a vigorous move, a player might suddenly find himself underneath his mount. Each player is dependent upon his mahout, or elephant driver, who sits in front of the rider, just behind the elephant’s ears. The mahout is responsible for steering the elephant. Each elephant-mahout combination must switch teams at the half. Everything is overseen by a referee who runs alongside at ground level.

A match begins when the referee tosses the ball into a centre circle. One player from each three-elephant team battles for control while his teammates hold back until the ball clears the circle. From then on it’s largely a matter of pursuit, with the added stipulations that 1) each team must always keep one of its elephants in the offensive half of the field,
2) each team must have one goalie elephant, and 3) no rider can intentionally intimidate another rider’s elephant.

The game consists of only two chukkers, of 7 minutes’ length; in horse polo, there are usually between four and six chukkers, each seven minutes long. But swinging an eight-foot mallet (which is twice the length of its horse-polo counterpart) for 20 minutes is very fatiguing. The most powerful shots are of the spectacular, crowd-pleasing, 360-degree-swing variety.

When the teams donned their pith helmets, grabbed their giant mallets and rode their elephants onto the field, the crowd went wild, thrilled by what must surely be one of the most exotic spectacles in sport. Elephant-polo spectators scream with every shot, but they scream loudest when the ball is hit toward the sidelines, because it is invariably pursued by charging elephants who might have difficulty stopping.

The Winning Team

At the awards ceremony, WEPA’s chairman Manclark reflected on elephant polo’s chances for recognition as an Olympic sport. ”Well, of course, to achieve Olympic status, it must be played in several countries. Now we have tournaments in  India and Thailand. They could play in Burma, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and a couple of other countries. If we can get those countries to experience the sport, I’d say elephant polo has a bright future indeed.” Pack some peanuts and get ready for the fun.

TRAVEL NOTES

Hua Hin is a charming beach resort, where King Rama VI built a summer palace. He played the golf course at Hua Hin once, though it was his successor, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) and his Queen who were the first Royal golfers.

The Anantara Resort and Spa organised the event with the co-operation of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, the World Elephant Polo Association and the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Packages for next year’s Elephant Polo tournament are available from The Anantara.

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