Scheduled at only one place, for just four days, in 2018
BANGKOK, Thailand––Elephant polo might in theory stagger on for years or even decades after the four-day 2018 King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament––if the last tournament host, Anantara Hotels & Resorts, remains willing to pour promotional effort into it and mahouts have elephants to rent to the competition.
For the elephant handlers, called mahouts, elephant polo is easy money, requiring each elephant to compete for just two 14-minute halfs per game, and only one game per day, between rest and feeding sessions, which are in themselves an elephant polo tournament attraction.
Seeking tourist fares, photo fees, participating in temple processions, and begging, the other major elephant occupations in modern Thailand, are all hugely more demanding of the elephants, and the mahouts, and are far less certain of fetching enough income in any given day to feed an elephant, a mahout, and the mahout’s family.
Last stand at the river
But external indications are that elephant polo will for all practical purposes be making a last stand at the coming tournament beside the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, scheduled for March 8 to March 11, 2018.
“Now in its sixteenth year, the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament has become one of the biggest charitable events in Southeast Asia,” Anantara Hotels & Resorts claims, “with over $1.5 million (USD) raised and donated to projects that better the lives of Thailand’s wild and domesticated elephant population.”
Money funneled through in-house nonprofit
The money is funneled through the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, formed by Anantara Hotels & Resorts in 2006. The foundation claims to have rescued “over 30 elephants from Thailand’s city streets, accompanied by their entire mahout family,” who receive English lessons and education for the children, while the women are employed raising silk worms and making silk wares for sale at the resort boutique.
The foundation also claims to have funded “clinics using elephants in therapy sessions for children living with autism; helping equip the first elephant hospital in Krabi in the southern part of Thailand, and donating a gantry to help lame elephants stand and a purpose-built elephant ambulance to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre” near Chiang Mai.
Working with several other charities and Minor International, the multinational holding company that owns Anantara Hotels & Resorts, the Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation has also “since 2013, funded the protection of an 18,000-hectare elephant corridor of standing forest in the Cardamom Mountains,” along the border of Thailand and Cambodia.
While elephant polo may have helped to fund some of the conservation work, the net claimed revenue of $1.5 million from 16 years of competition, amounting to $93,750 per year on average, probably did not accomplish very much of it. WildAid director Suwanna Gauntlett, for whom the Humane Farming Foundation sanctuary in northern California is named, reportedly chipped in $2 million herself.
Moved from the boonies to Bangkok
Meanwhile, to boost attendance and revenue potential, the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament was relocated to Bangkok in 2014 from previous venues in Hua Hin, on the Thai southern peninsula, and Chiang Rai, in the far northeast.
The relocation did hype interest and income, for a few years.
But comparing the announced revenue figures from year to year suggests that revenue from the elephant polo tournament slipped in 2017 from the 2016 peak of $430,000.
Though the elephant polo tournament remains a tourist draw, of sorts, participation has dwindled from 16 teams in 2014 to just 10 in 2016 and 2017.
Transgender teams won’t outdraw golf
And at that, Anantara Hotels & Resorts advertises annually, the rosters are inflated by the inclusion of teams made up of “staff members at a local luxury hotel,” in other words one or more “house” teams, and “performers from Thailand’s famous Miss Tiffany’s transgender cabaret.”
Highlights of the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament are sometimes televised, but as a novelty. The sports bar audience for even the novelty clips will almost certainly be much smaller than the audience for the otherwise obscure Valspar Championship PGA golf tournament going on during the same four days at the Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club in Palm Harbor, Florida, offering $6.3 million in prize money.
Dead in three of four nations
As an internationally played sport, elephant polo has already followed the mastodons and woolly mammoths to oblivion.
The World Elephant Polo Association, apparently moribund, has posted nothing new to either Facebook or the WEPA web site since January 2015.
Thailand, the last nation where elephant polo is played, was also the last nation where it was introduced. Having debuted in Nepal in 1982, Sri Lanka in 2002, and in Jaipur, India in 2005, elephant polo has already ended everywhere else.
Too many drinks in St. Moritz
Recounted one-time player Jonathan Thompson for the Belfast Telegraph in 2006, “Elephant polo came about as a result of a few too many drinks in a bar one evening. In this case it happened at the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club in 1981,” in the Swiss Alps, half a world away from the Himalayas, where it would first be played.
“Jim Edwards, an English hotelier who ran the famous Tiger Tops hunting lodge in Nepal, hatched the concept with the Scottish adventurer, entrepreneur and former Olympic bobsled competitor James Manclark,” Thompson added.
Entering Nepal first in 1962 as a driver for a Saab car promotion, Edwards cofounded the Nepal Wildlife Adventure tourism company in 1964, promoting hunting, fishing, and jungle trek safaris.
From trophy hunting to ecotourism
But Edwards lost interest in hunting. Purchasing the Tiger Tops hunting lodge in Royal Chitwan National Park in 1971, opened in 1965 by Dallas realtor Toddy Lee Wynne and oil magnate Herb Klein, Edwards gradually transformed the focal activities at the lodge from trophy hunting to nonlethal ecotourism.
Edwards’ death in 2009, at age 75, may have been the beginning of the end for elephant polo, though hardly anyone imagined it at the time.
Tiger Tops announced on December 3, 2017, coincidental with the opening of the 2017 Asia for Animals conference in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, that it “would stop hosting elephant polo to support the movement against animal cruelty,” reported Sangam Prasain and Nabin Poudel of the Kathmandu Post.
“Will end sufferings of elephants”
“Last July,” Prasain and Poudel wrote, Tiger Tops “stopped elephant safaris in a bid to end animal suffering. Adventure seekers now follow the jumbos on foot to observe their activities, instead of riding on their backs for jungle sight-seeing.”
“After stopping elephant safaris, we have decided to stop hosting elephant polo as well,” Tiger Tops manager D.B. Chaudhary told Prasain and Poudel. “The termination of the popular event may disappoint tourists for some time, but it will end sufferings of elephants.”
Concluded Prasain and Poundel, “Tiger Tops, which is now operating as Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge in Nawalparasi, believes [the end of elephant polo] will not affect wildlife tourism,” having been replaced by “an elephant adventure that highlights the natural behavior of the jumbos, living in spacious, natural corrals and immersed in chain-free life from morning to the evening.”
The end of elephant polo in Nepal may have been accelerated when in 2011 the Nepalese Department of National Parks & Wildlife Reserves “barred government-owned tuskers from taking part in any kind of game where chances of physical contact with privately-owned elephants without tuberculosis-free certificates are high,” the Nepalese online newspaper My Republica reported.
The agency also required the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) “every winter to confirm that their elephants are not suffering from tuberculosis,” My Republica added, “after 10 elephants were found suffering from the disease shortly after an elephant polo tournament concluded in Bardiya district. The game, usually held in Chitwan, was held in Bardiaya in December 2009, after a dispute led to the closure of all hotels and resorts inside Chitwan National Park.”
Tuk-tuks replace elephants in Sri Lanka
“Boutique hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs organized the annual Ceylon Elephant Polo Association Bowl [from 2002 to 2007] to help boost upmarket tourism and elephant conservation” in Sri Lanka, Reuters recounted.
Dobbs’ tournament came to an abrupt end, however, when an 18-year-old elephant named Abey “threw off his mahout and American rider as the island’s sixth annual elephant polo tournament got under way, rampaging off the pitch and crushing the Spanish team’s minibus with his head.”
Dobbs resumed the tournament in 2016, more-or-less, as a competition for polo players riding in three-wheeled taxis, locally called tuk-tuks.
Slow death in India
Elephant polo appears to have last been played in Jaipur, India in 2008, but the end was not announced until January 2015.
Then, after a decade of escalating protests from Indian animal advocacy organizations, and a national campaign called Jumbo Cause, orchestrated by the Times of India newspaper, “Tourism stakeholders decided to issue an advisory against elephant polo,” and told “foreign agents not to book any more tours promising elephant polo in Rajasthan,” recounted Rachna Singh of the Times News Network.
The Rambagh, Jai Mahal, Dera Amber, and City Palace hotels in Jaipur had all hosted elephant polo, creating the first and only elephant polo league featuring home-and-away games, as in other professional spectator sports.
Elephant polo was introduced to Jaipur by Mark Shand, younger brother of British Prince Charles’ wife Camilla Parker Bowles.
Shand, author of the 1992 British best-seller Travels On My Elephant, about a 600-mile elephant trek across India, had in 2002 founded a charity called The Elephant Family to undertake a variety of conservation and welfare projects benefiting Asian elephants.
At the 2005 Kaziranga Centenary Celebrations, Shand reportedly promoted elephant football and elephant tug-of-war, then turned to promoting elephant polo in Jaipur as a fundraising activity for the Jaipur-based humane organization Help In Suffering.
Help In Suffering, in partnership with the Wildlife Trust of India, had since August 2001 presented clinics for about 125 elephants and their mahouts who ferry tourists up a steep hill to the Amber Fort, the major tourist attraction in the Jaipur area.
Funds raised in part by the proceeds from Shand’s elephant polo matches enabled Help In Suffering to hold more frequent clinics. But the elephant polo matches became controversial in 2006-2007. The Elephant Family and Help In Suffering withdrew from involvement.
Having no more to do with elephant polo, Shand died in April 2014, at age 62, from a head injury suffered in a fall when he reportedly tried to re-enter a New York City bar through a revolving door, after smoking a cigarette outside.
Meanwhile elephant polo had already been at least technically illegal since 2001, when a new set of national Performing Animals Registration Rules, issued in belated enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, prohibited any use of elephants in entertainment.
Animal advocate Naresh Kadyan won an order against further elephant polo matches from the Rajasthan High Court in 2008, but in Jaipur the order was ignored.
The Central Zoo Authority of India in November 2009 decreed that elephants could no longer be exhibited by zoos and circuses. As this order appeared to apply to other uses of elephants in entertainment as well, including elephant polo, and as appeals of the 2008 Rajasthan High Court order were underway, elephant polo was suspended in Jaipur in 2009-2010 due to litigation, but resumed in 2011.
The major sponsor, however, the Carlsberg brewing empire, withdrew in August 2011 as result of protests led by Beauty Without Cruelty India.
“We have decided to stop our association with this event. While we comprehend that these specific elephants were in no way being violated,” said Rishi Wadhera of Carlsberg India, “we respect the concern being raised and hence have decided to do the right thing.”
Celebrity interest in elephant polo had long since waned when in November 2012 the Daily Telegraph, of London, England, alleged that supermodel and former People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals spokesperson Naomi Campbell “was going to organize [an elephant polo] tournament in Jodhpur for partner Vladimir Doronin’s 50th birthday,” summarized Josh Halliday of The Guardian.
The story was bizarre from the beginning, since there are few if any elephants for hire in Jodhpur, a desert city in Rajasthan about 200 miles from Jaipur, where elephant polo has never been played. And Campbell clarified immediately that she had never planned to hold an elephant polo tournament, either in Jodhpur or anywhere else.
Nonetheless, recounted Halliday, “The article was republished widely online and
prompted protests against Campbell by animal rights groups. Indian government departments wrote to Campbell’s representatives to complain, according to her lawyers.”
Suing the Daily Telegraph, Campbell “received an apology and ‘substantial’ libel damages,” Halliday reported.
Little choice but to quit
After the Animal Welfare Board of India announced in November 2013 that it would no longer license elephants for circus use, and by implication would no longer permit elephant polo, either, the Jaipur promoters appear to have had little choice but to find a way to gracefully abandon their efforts to revive it.