Story by Cameron Cooper
Pachaderm Polo. It sounds absurd, really – two teams of multi-ton animals bestrode with people wielding huge mallets, careening around a large field in pursuit of a tiny white ball. But this sport has begun to take root and continues to grow in popularity. This year, Thailand hosts their third annual King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Hua Hin, Thailand from September 16th to 21st, 2003.
Where Did it All Begin?
Over the last few hundred thousand years, humans have managed to make a few friends in the animal kingdom – the ones most of us don’t eat. Some of the connections are pretty easy to trace. Dogs who had lost their pack or been thrown out would mooch around at the edge of the caveman fire for scraps of food, someone threw a couple of bits and a food bond relationship began (we even formed a hunting partnership that benefited both species). Birds we just netted and imprisoned – same with gerbils and hamsters. Cats, one can only assume, simply decided to move in one day, took over the most comfortable chair, demanded to be fed, and we humans, being a species that loves a strong leader, blindly complied with their demands.
Some of the larger animals were a bit tougher – wild buffalos and horses took a bit of taming before consenting to live with us.
But perhaps the strangest bond must be human and elephant. How did we manage to convince these massive, noble, intelligent and inherently stubborn beasts? Why would they consent to let us climb on their backs, lift logs and fight wars? What stopped them from losing patience with these silly little bipedal animals and just trampling us? It’s not an answer that appears to be available anywhere on the Internet, so we can only guess, but it must have taken a lot of bananas.
Things have come a long way since then, because now they play polo with us, taking the traditional role of horses – and the sport is growing in popularity with more tournaments and teams added every year.
The sport originated in the late 1800s during the days of the British Raj in India. There was nothing these bold and brave chaps wouldn’t try, and someone happened upon the bright idea of riding elephants instead of horses (already it was pure madness to venture out into the tropical sun, but this took the cake.)
The game is similar to horse polo, though played on a somewhat smaller field, since elephants are a bit slower. Men (and now women as well) with mallets up to three metres long (depending on the size of the animal) harness themselves to the back of an elephant just behind a mahout – the elephant’s trainer and driver – and they chase a ball around the field, hammering it back and forth with the mallet, maneuvering towards the opposing team’s goal and eventually knocking it in. This is every bit as tricky as it sounds, because not only is the ball small, the mallet long and the elephant a constantly swaying perch, the player and the mahout have to coordinate their intentions and get the elephant to go where it’s needed. Since mahouts are fellows who spend much of their lives in the jungle and as such, are not renowned for their linguistic skills, cannot understand the languages of the players. This can make communication difficult, so players have to learn the rudiments of their driver’s language, whether it be Nepali, Sri Lankan, or Thai.
In accordance with The World Elephant Polo Association, which was formed in Nepal in 1982, the game consists of two seven-minute chukkas, with three elephants per team. Among the more interesting rules is that it is a penalty offense for an elephant to lie down in front of the goal. The ball is now a standard polo ball. Initially, they tried using soccer balls, but soon found that the elephants took a peculiar delight in stomping on them, and they got tired of replacing them.
It is worth mentioning that according to the association, the elephants don’t suffer for the sport. Not only are there strict rules against harsh treatment, the games are played in the morning to avoid subjecting the animals to intense heat. Elephants are not allowed to play in consecutive games and given treats during break times and play a maximum of two games per day. Further, the association says that the elephants, like the humans that ride them, actually enjoy the break in routine and the social opportunities that the games offer.
An Ideal Location
It is fitting that Hua Hin is now a regular host to the Elephant Polo tournaments. The elephant has always loomed large in Thai culture, and is a national symbol. Up until 1917, a white elephant, which is associated with royalty, appeared on the Thai flag. Hua Hin is the Royal resort town (the first in Thailand) and the place where the King of Thailand now spends much of his time. The town itself, which has attracted much tourist interest in recent years amongst both Thais and foreigners, has a traditional feel to it, unlike some places where the development has been swift and modern. It is an excellent place for such old-style relaxation and entertainment.
Whither the Pachyderms?
Thais have worked in the jungle and fields alongside elephants for centuries now. And in the days before tanks and heavy artillery, the armored war elephant was Asia’s not-so-secret weapon. A line of stampeding elephant impervious to arrows was a formidable foe. They can run at speed up to 25 km/hr.
They are trained by mahouts from an early age – three to five years old – often by a father and son team. The elephants don’t respond well to new trainers, and have a working lifespan of about 50 years (they can live up to eighty years), so the father/son teams can see it through its working life. Traditionally, during their training, which takes about five years, these intelligent giants learn to push, carry and pile logs, along with walking in procession and bathing.
However, these days, with a logging ban in effect in Thailand, there is little work for Thailand’s 3,500 domesticated elephants to do, and many end up in the cities as their mahouts attempt to make a living by selling food for city people to feed them, or taking donations for people to walk under them for good luck.
Their future is uncertain, certainly as working animals, particularly considering their lifespan. But perhaps with a bit more awareness and respect, engendered by events like the polo tournaments, at least some of these noble creatures can find a place. And we can make good on the promise of a long-term partnership made centuries ago.