Polo Like You’ve Never Seen It Before


Image via nycbikepolo

A world championship that won’t make it to the sports front page is the 28th World Elephant Polo Championship, currently taking place deep in the Nepalese jungle. Yes, you read correctly – that’s polo played on elephants’ backs. It’s a popular sport with participating teams from Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Hong Kong and even England, the US and Scotland. But apart from one obvious, er, big difference, how is it played and how do the elephants fare? Let’s find out.

At first glance, the polo field at Meghauli Airfield on the edge of Chitwan National Park in Kathmandu looks like any regular polo setting: players mill about pre-game, checking their mallets and other equipment, excited spectators take pictures or let themselves be captured while others sip drinks. But then, the main players of this unique sport come into sight in front of the backdrop of the Himalayas: eight Indian elephants, ready to play.

Scrambling for the ball at WEPA 24:
WEPA 24Photo:
Image via pukkachukkas

Welcome to the world of elephant polo! Each team has four players consisting of one elephant, one mahout to steer and one player each to direct the play. So we’re talking about eight elephants, eight mahouts and eight players per game. Given the size of the pachyderms, one might think they would require a larger field than usual but on the contrary: At 100 x 70 m, the pitch is only three quarters of the size of a regular polo pitch because elephants tire faster.

An elephant polo game in Thailand:

Image via blacktomato

For the same reason, each half of the game only lasts 10 minutes with an interval of 15 minutes, after which players change sides and elephants. Though played with a regular polo ball, the sticks are of course different – about 2-3 m (6-9 ft) long cane sticks with a polo mallet at the end. Use of an ankush (a sharp hook used for steering the elephant) is strictly forbidden.

Hey, don’t poke me:
WEPA 27Photo:
Image via pukkachukkas

Where’s that ball?
During the gamePhoto:
Image via nikjames

Half of the 16 elephants that participate in the World Elephant Polo Championships each year belong to the Nepal National Parks, the other half to Tiger Tops Jungle Resort, a luxury retreat sponsoring the championship. According to the World Elephant Polo Association’s (WEPA) website, the animals are well fed and sheltered and get as much exercise as a wild elephant would, yet they have to earn their keep:

“When not playing polo, the Tiger Tops elephants take guests out on wildlife safaris twice a day. The safaris are limited in time so as not to tire the elephants. During the day the elephants are taken out to fields so their trainers can cut grass for their meals. They eat a diet similar to that of wild elephants – primarily grass – but they also receive supplements with vitamins and good nutrients. They are bathed in the river daily. They receive love, attention and communication and are truly cherished.”

Here’s a video that gives further insights into the action on the pitch:

Elephant polo was first played at the beginning of the 20th century in India. The first tournament is said to have been played on the 28th of March 1976 in Jaipur. Since 1982, the World Elephant Polo Championship as organised by WEPA takes place annually. That whoever thought of it in the first place may have had one too many is supported by the belief that the idea for an official elephant polo association originated in a bar in Switzerland. And then, the championship’s sponsor is a prominent whiskey producer…

Elephant polo as a tourist attraction at the Maharaja’s palace in Jaipur, India
Elephant Polo JaipurPhoto:
Image: Tony

…and as entertainment at a Jaipur wedding:
Elephant polo at weddingPhoto:
Image: Mike Bostock

A number of animal rights groups, especially in India, are against elephant polo, citing the use of the ankush and general cruelty in treatment as reasons. Dr. Dame Edna Sheldrick of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust speaks against elephant polo as organised in Rajasthan:

“I have worked with elephants for over 50 years of my life… Elephants are not designed to play polo and nor should they. All who support this cruel activity contribute to un-necessary suffering of animals that have already suffered enormously from the brutal training techniques they endure which no sane person can call humane.”

There surely is a difference between short, organised events that use local elephants that are cared for throughout the year and unorganised tourist attractions with animal handlers who will treat the animals in any which way just to make a quick buck. In the end, it is our choice if we want to participate in this “exotic” game or not.

Given their shrinking habits worldwide, the question also is if truly wild elephants will soon be a thing of the past and if we need to find ways to integrate habitats where humans and elephants can cross paths.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

We’ll even throw in a free album.