FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Elephant Polo

Sep 1, 2013
2013 / September 2013

Two things go through your mind when you’re on the back of a runaway elephant. First, can such a large animal be brought back under control? Second, it’s a long way down.

As I sat helplessly on the wobbly wooden bench strapped across the elephant’s back, I put my faith in the mahout. My trust was apparently misplaced. From his perch astride the animal’s neck, legs tucked behind the flapping ears, the mahout attempted to impose his will with nothing more than a few urgently shouted commands and increasingly desperate swishes of his small stick. The pachyderm was in no mood to obey.

The elephant detoured off the jungle path that was our intended route and plunged us through thick vegetation as he made a beeline for the nearby river. We splashed into the shallows. I held my breath, expecting a complete dunking. But it turned out all the elephant wanted was a drink.

With that experience in mind, I can’t help but admire the flight of lunacy that prompted a couple of sports enthusiasts to come up with the notion of elephant polo. Really? Two teams of up to four elephants competing back and forth within the confines of a playing field? Surely it’s a recipe for chaos at best, with a genuine risk of squashed humans.

In reality, the sport has become an unlikely success. The first matches, grandly dubbed the World Championship, were held in Nepal in 1982. The event has been staged every year since, with the 2013 edition scheduled for Nov. 25–29 at Tiger Tops’ Karnali Lodge in Bardia National Park.

Meanwhile, since 2001, a related elephant polo tournament has been hosted by the exclusive Anantara Hotel in the beachside town of Hua Hin in southern Thailand, in which rival teams contest the King’s Cup. This year’s final is held on Sept. 1.

Both events have a serious underlying motive. They aim to raise awareness about the plight of Asian domestic elephants and to raise funds for their welfare. Street elephants contest the King’s Cup, each carrying a mahout and a player armed with a long polo mallet. The aim, as in horse polo, is to strike a small ball toward, and ultimately through, the opposing team’s goal. For logistical reasons, all players must wield their mallet right-handed. They concentrate on hitting the ball while the mahout does his utmost to position the elephant.

Certain species-specific amendments to the rules distinguish elephant polo from horse polo. No animal is permitted to pick the ball up with its trunk. And it is a foul for any elephant to obstruct the goal by lying down in front of it.

As the match ebbs and flows, it is surprising how nimble these great animals can be. Expertly guided by their mahouts, with whom they often have a partnership forged over many years, they can turn on a dime; they can dash smoothly in pursuit of the ball and then hold steady while the player swings the mallet.

There is something about the elephants’ jaunty gait, something about the way they brush the ground with their trunks, that suggests another surprising aspect of their participation in this sport. They seem to be enjoying every minute.

Thinking back to my incident with the wayward elephant in northern Thailand, I realize I misjudged the relationship between humans and domestic elephants. They only do what they want to do. If we’re lucky, if we treat them well and respect their innate dignity, they’ll take us along for the ride.

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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