World's Dumbo-est Sport

Every year in the north of Thailand, a mass of enormous mammals and riders face off in mock battles, wielding mallets and wowing crowds. It's slow moving, undeniably silly, and bears little resemblance to genuine sport, but it raises awareness and money for the rescue of Asia's embattled elephant population.

By Ron Gluckman / Golden Triangle, Thailand

THREE MASSIVE BEASTS  faced off on opposite ends of a huge field, festooned in colorful battle dress, an adrenaline-charged warrior strapped onto each elephant. For centuries, these enormous mammals – the world’s first tanks – helped determine the rise and ebb of empires around this opium-rich region, dubbed the Golden Triangle, for the poppy fields that once flourished where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet.

  Now they take to the field for sport. Teams elephants sparred on a soccer pitch in farthest north Thailand from March 23-29, Myanmar looming hazy in the mist across the nearby Mekong River. Players wielded not weapons, but long wickets, seated behind a Thai elephant handler, or mahout. The mahout kicked and exhorted the elephant to trundle about the field. Spectators cheered players swinging chimney-sweep sized sticks in huge windmill twirls, trying to bat the ball into one of the goals on opposite ends of the field.

  Such is the essence of elephant polo, which is surely more comical to witness than describe. Fans term it the largest, slowest sport on land. Then, there is the player perspective, bouncing around on a loveable, laughable creature more suited to cartoons than competitive sports. “This is totally silly,” conceded Claire McNicholl, captain of the Nellies, an all-women team. “The important thing is to not take yourself too serious.”

  Yet there is a serious side to what, on the surface, might seem a ludicrous sport - if a bunch of drunk ex-pats cursing large, insanely stubborn and slow-moving beasts, can be called sport. Elephant polo annually stages a series of comical jousts amidst a boozy weeklong bash, hosted by luxury resorts in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Beer, wine and pims are consumed by the bucket-load, but cash is also raised to benefit elephants, in similarly impressive quantities. In the past, the field follies have bankrolled elephant rescue, research and health, and Thailand’s first elephant ambulance.

  Nobody really knows the origins of elephant polo, but it’s not hard to imagine bored British officers, based in a remote outpost of the Raj, spying a few mega-ton mammals, and sizing them up for saddles and sticks. The evolution of this goofy game into the World Elephant Polo Association, complete with a 50-page rule book, began in 1982, when Jim Edwards and James Manclark, rightfully reckoned it would be a funny way for jetsetters to pass the time in the wilds of Asia.


   Both are legends among Asian adventurers. Manclark has tried to circle the world by balloon, and represented Great Britain at the Olympics in the Luge and the bobsleigh. Manclark opened the Golden Triangle games with a stirring eulogy of Edwards, who died March 23, the very day that the polo association the pair co-founded returned to Thailand for the 2009 cup qualifiers.

  Born in 1935, Edwards was a true original, driving across jungle and mountains to reach Nepal in the 1960s, then pioneering trekking and tourism ventures before taking over the famed Tiger Tops lodge. Long before the Asian travel trail was littered with internet cafes, beach bungalows and banana pancakes, Edwards turned his remote Nepalese hideaway into a hip refuge for bohemian guests and celebrities like Ringo Starr, Cameron Diaz and Orlando Bloom.

  Some of those early stars played in the first elephant polo matches, which not only attracted writers from around the globe, but the corporate sponsors, who helped define the direction of elephant polo as much as the conservationist philosophy. From the start, the matches drew attention to a succession of luxury brands from watches to whiskey, all the while raising awareness and funds for the protection of wildlife.

  “It all came together by accident,” Edwards said in an interview at an earlier polo match. “We pretty much made it up as we went along. In the beginning, we weren’t even sure if it was a sport,” he chuckled, “but it was a good excuse for a party. And it grew into a very popular event, not just for participants, but also the locals. We had crowds of thousands come to watch. It was quite a spectacle.”

  The first games set the tone for what has surely become one of the world’s oddest sporting events. Borrowing its structure – and many of the best players – from horse polo, the field was shorter because of the lazy jaunt of elephants, but the sticks were lengthened. Played at a grassy airstrip, matches had to be halted for passing planes. One early attendee summed up the unique challenge of elephant polo thusly: “Like playing one-handed golf from the top of a double-decker bus with a puncture.”

  Still, the quirky competition had an odd appeal, especially to the adventurous jet-set in Asia, who were attracted by the celebrities, camaraderie and kitschy competition, as much as the cause. Word of mouth spurred elephant polo from the mountaintops of Nepal to the beaches of Thailand and Sri Lanka.

  Geoffrey Dobbs tells how the sport washed ashore six years ago in Sri Lanka, where the former Hong Kong resident had relocated to open a pair of boutique hotels in the historic port city of Galle. “I was having a dinner party one evening on an island I also own, off the coast from my hotels, and two of the guests cancelled at the last minute. I called the hotel and asked: ‘You have any interesting guests who might like to join us’?”

  Peter Prentice was on his honeymoon, but regaled his host with tales of a higher love: jousting atop pachyderms. Prentice, a pitchman for Chivas Regal, has become poster boy for elephant polo, as much for over two decades of play and numerous trophies, as the booming voice behind the theatrical play-by-play. “The pressure is mounting,” he enthused in melodic baritone during one match last month. “Never in the history of global sports has so much pressure rested upon the shoulders of one man.”

  Dobbs was easily swayed by such passion at their first dinner meeting in 2003. “It was one of those serendipitous moments,” he recalled. “Two months later, I was in Nepal watching them play, and four months later they were in Sri Lanka, playing on the beach. I believe it was the world’s first elephant polo on the beach.”

  The have been loads of other serendipitous moments, as elephant polo conquered another beach south of Bangkok, in Hua Hin, where longtime American entrepreneur Bill Heinecke was looking for new attractions for his Anantara resort. The Hua Hin polo matches drew the entire scope of Bangkok society. One team, the Screwless Tuskers, featured a group of ladyboys. During one match, play halted when one of the Tuskers accidently dropped a falsie on the course. That wasn’t covered by the rule book – but an elephant laying in front of the goal, or stomping the ball are, both penalties.

  In 2006, the Thai games moved to a new home in the Golden Triangle, which are fitting for a variety of reasons. Elephants are native to the area, as opposed to Hua Hin, where they were more a novelty. Heinecke’s Minor Corporation owns a pair of hotels run by Four Seasons and its own Anantara brand. Both properties not only host a herd of elephants, but celebrate the mammals in every aspect of design and execution. The animals appear in lighting fixtures, fountains and facets.

  With 160 acres, the Anantara is practically an elephant sanctuary, and that’s the idea, according to staff elephant specialist John Roberts. Elephants working the streets of Bangkok, begging for handouts, are rescued and returned to something like the wild in an innovative scheme that tackles one of Thailand’s most tragic wildlife stories.

  In the two decades since Thailand halted rampant logging, thousands of elephants, the tractors and haulers for the industry, were thrown out of work. With horrendous upkeep – elephants consume up to 200 kilos of food a day – many handlers moved to the city, working the tourist areas for handouts. Any visitor to the Thai capital has seen the consequences, from the cute baby elephants begging for bananas outside bars, to traffic jams squeezing around a full-grown goliath, red reflector tied to his tail.

  Prasop Tipprasert, elephant specialist at the state-funded Thai Elephant Conservation Center, has, over two decades, pioneered a variety of alternatives: elephant orchestras to perform for tourists, and elephant painting. Elephant art has sold at auction for up to $2,000, while recordings of elephant bands help offset upkeep of scores of pachyderms at the center. Elephants are also trained to work at tourist camps. Yet he estimated that half of the domesticated elephants in Thailand are probably without employment.

  Hence, the migration of mahout and mammal to the cities. Besides Bangkok, they perform at stage reviews in Pattaya, and wherever tourists congregate. This is a particularly tragic twist to the plight of elephants, which once ranged across the whole of Asia, but are now extinct, endangered or in decline in practically all of the 13 nations in which they survive. There may only be 40,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants left.

  India has almost half that number, while Sri Lanka has probably the highest density, as well as the biggest competition for habitat with humans on a crowded island. Yet, only Thailand, with perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 elephants left from an estimated 100,000 a century ago, faces an epidemic of urbanized elephants.

  Tipprasert said the lifespan of a city elephant is typically around five years, a consequence of traffic, pollution and especially the altered diet. This is where rescue organizations like Anantara’s Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation come in. Elephants are taken off the streets of Bangkok and moved to the resort grounds, where they become part of a diverse package of elephant programs. Guests are given the chance to train as a mahout, wash and feed the elephant, or simply marvel at the way the huge mammals move around the property.

  “We don’t buy the elephants,” said Roberts. “If we did, the mahout would probably just buy another one and go back to begging. We recognize that most elephants grew up with people, so we try and look after the elephant and the family.” Mahouts, in a sense, become sub-contractors, given housing and a monthly salary, plus food for the animal. In return, the mahouts provide trekking and other services for guests.

  At Four Seasons Tented Camp next door, that means parading to breakfast to the oohs and ahs of guests every morning, but otherwise just foraging the lush grounds, like gigantic attractions in a nature park. “The impact is huge,” said manager Michel Volk. “Elephants take their time, so you slow down, too. I’ve seen guests tapping away on a blackberry, right on the verge of a stress breakdown, then they go out with the elephants, and come back so relaxed. It’s elephant therapy.”

  Guests, in turn, become benefactors for the beasts. “They bond with them,” he said, “with particular elephants, and sponsor them, paying for their upkeep for a year or two.” As a result, the rescue program shared by both properties is completely self-sufficient. All the money raised by polo goes to other elephant charities. Thus far, the Thailand games have raised over $200,000 for elephant conservation programs.

 Heinecke called it “a win-win situation for the elephants and the community.” Visitors, too. “Guests want different experiences. They have been to all the best hotels. They want to experience something different, something authentic, and this is it. These are real mahouts they work with. They live with their families, in a natural setting.”

  Some think this could be a model for elephant survival in Asia. “Things for elephants are getting worse,” Roberts said. “There are just too many elephants on the street. I don’t know if they are breeding them, or smuggling them in, but the problem is not going away. Of course, the ideal situation would be to return them to the wild, but there just isn’t the land anymore, or the money.”

  Resorts could finance small sanctuaries, in a sympathetic, symbiotic relationship with guests seeking a wild thrill. Not all are bowled over by this sort of Disney Dumbo, or elephant polo. Groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) allege that animals are treated painfully during training. Roberts retorted that animals in the games are all domesticated, and play half an hour per day, instead of up to 16 hours walking Bangkok’s bad streets. Plus, they gorge on forest foliage.

  “It’s really like a holiday for them.” Once a year, in the Golden Triangle, it quite a party for a large, boisterous group of Asian ex-pats, too.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been roaming around Asia since 1990, for various publications, including the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) which ran this story in the April, 2009 issue.

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