A field day over elephant polo
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2006:
JAIPUR–Elephant polo, by most witness accounts, would seem
to be among the most unlikely of sports to generate controversy. It
is slow-moving, and not televised in bar rooms. Few people watch in
person. Fewer still participate, or could afford to, at a World
Elephant Polo Association-advertised price of $6,000 per team
tournament entry, covering elephant rental, equipment use,
officiating, and insurance.
Only the participants are likely to bet on the games.
An October 2005 “international” match in Jaipur, India,
between teams of three men from the Lahore Polo Club of Pakistan and
three women from the Amby Valley of Germany, ended abruptly when an
elephant stepped on the ball. None of the “world class” players had
ever before ridden elephants.
Elephant polo in October 2006 nonetheless generated one of
the most heated debates in the history of the Asian Animal Protection
Network, with more than two dozen participants posting in excess of
70 messages. Few by sports discussion forum standards, that
amounted to more messages than there have been either elephant or
human participants in any elephant polo tournament held in the past
30 years–or possibly ever, since the origins of the game may be
recent, despite claims that it has ancient roots.
Within days the debate “polo-rized” elephant experts and
animal experts worldwide, spilling over into The Asian Age, of New
Delhi, The Hindu of Chennai, and other mainstream news media.
AAPN, founded by John Wedder-burn of Hong Kong in 1996, has
become the leading electronic medium for animal advocacy news and
discussion serving China, India, and all points between, also
attracting some American and European participation.
“The Maharajahs of Jaipur first played elephant polo in
1975,” according to Lokendra Singh of Asian News International, but
Jonathan Thompson of the Belfast Telegraph on October 16, 2006 gave
a different account.
“Like all good ideas,” Thompson wrote, “elephant polo came
about as a result of a few too many drinks. In this case it happened
at the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club in 1981. Jim Edwards, an English
hotelier who runs the famous Tiger Tops hunting lodge in Nepal,
hatched the concept with the Scottish adventurer, entrepreneur, and
former Olympic bobsled competitor James Manclark.”
“There are around 200 serious players now,” Edwards told
Thompson, “though the elephants won’t let us take it too seriously.”
But the World Elephant Polo Association web site lists only two
tournaments, naming fewer than 40 players. Several teams are listed
with no named players.
Thompson claimed to have played in a 12-team King’s Cup
tournament in Thailand before a crowd of 3,000, including attendants
who rushed out in mid-game to remove poop from the field.
“The elephants appear to enjoy the game almost as much as
their human counterparts,” Thompson asserted. “As the three-a-side
tournament progresses, they bellow, trumpet and gambol, with a few
of them displaying a rudimentary knowledge of the rules by kicking
the ball ahead of them before chasing after it.”
“There is certainly an understanding of what is going on,”
agreed John Roberts, 32, who is director of elephants for the host
resort. “In fact, they often play games among themselves. The young
ones will throw a plastic bag up in the air and to each other, and
the older ones will bully them in order to get it.”
Before the October 2006 fracas, the only previous AAPN
posting about elephant polo was a hyperbolic press release claiming
in September 2005 that a Thai tournament had raised $100,000 “for the
National Elephant Institute, which provides medical care for the
animals and training for elephant handlers.”
Thirty elephants and 48 riders were said to be involved.
The flame war started on October 8 when vehement wildlife
captivity opponent Shubhobroto Ghosh of Kolkata posted an article by
Suman Tarafdar of the Financial Express about an elephant polo match
scheduled for November 18 in Jaipur.
Among the players will be Mark Shand, author of the 1992
British best-seller Travels On My Elephant, about a 600-mile
elephant trek across India, and founder of a charity called The
Elephant Family in 2002.
Shand is also brother of Prince Charles’ wife Camilla Parker
Bowles. Both Charles and Camilla are foxhunters and captive bird
shooters, but Assam television journalist Azam Siddique, a frequent
writer of letters to ANIMAL PEOPLE, didn’t even mention his
relatives in objecting to Shand’s alleged promotion of “elephant
football, elephant tug-of-war, and other circus-like events” during
the Kaziranga Centenary Celebrations in 2005.
Siddique further asserted that Shand has eaten rats “and
other wild creatures with some remote tribals of Arunachal Pradesh”
in television documentaries; that his book River Dog: A Journey
Down The Brahmaputra (2004) misidentified the Assamese as dog-eaters,
instead of the Nagas, who live in a neighboring state, and that
Shand’s 1994 book Queen of the Elephants unwarrantedly glorified
Assamese mahout Parbati Barua.
“The reality of this queen was exposed by Mike Pandey (in
2003) when he filmed how a wild elephant was tortured and later
killed by Barua and her team,” Siddique wrote. A failed attempt to
tame a young elephant, the incident was described on page one of the
May 2003 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE. Pandey’s film The Vanishing
Giants won him his second Ashden Award, better known as a “Green
Expressing concern that elephant polo might spread throughout
India, leading to more elephant captures and abuse, Ghosh and
Siddique drew supporting statements from Zoocheck Canada director Rob
Laidlaw; Ambika Shukla, almost as noted an animal advocate in India
as her sister Maneka Gandhi; Blue Cross of India chair Chinny
Krishna; PETA India director Anuradha Sawhney; and Captive Animals
Protection Society campaign manager Craig Redmond.
But most showed little awareness of the actualities of
elephant polo, a part-time employment of working elephants whose
usual routine is plodding on pavement, bearing tourists through
exhaust fumes and traffic, or simply standing, awaiting dwindling
numbers of customers, as the Baby Boomers who once rode elephants
age, and younger tourists view elephant-riding as socially
inappropriate. Elephant polo-playing is the only chance most of the
elephants ever have to run on grass, for about 10 minutes of total
active game time.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust founder Daphne Sheldrick
objected from Nairobi, Kenya that the elephants would be “prodded
with sharp ankuses” and would play in excessive heat.
That brought a prompt rebuttal from Christine Townend, head
trustee of the Help In Suffering animal hospitals and sanctuaries in
Jaipur and Darjeeling, India. Townend and Animal Liberation author
Peter Singer cofounded the Australian animal rights group Animal
Liberation in 1978. Since 2000, Townend has hosted annual elephant
care clinics in Jaipur, featured in the September 2001 edition of
“There will be no ankus used in this alternative elephant
polo match,” Townend wrote, “the purpose of which is to demonstrate
to the 15-20 private companies which hold polo matches in Jaipur
every season, and which cannot be prevented at present from holding
these matches, that the use of the ankus is redundant and should be
abandoned. Indeed, with the support of the Rajasthan government, we
have succeeded in having use of the ankus abolished in Jaipur, among
many other important welfare measures, including a ban on the
elephants working in the summer months during the day, a ban on sick
or crippled elephants working, licencing of mahouts, limiting
elephants’ load to two people, and insisting owners provide shade.”
In a follow-up message, Townend deplored “elephants chained
on cement developing arthritis and needing exercise more than
anything else. I love those elephants,” Townend declared, “and I
am happy to see them stretch their limbs and muscles as they would in
“There are 15,000 captive elephants in India,” Townend
continued, “who can never return to the wild,” largely because the
wild habitat they once occupied has been logged, cultivated, and/or
“They must be provided with exercise and something to do,”
Townend said. “It is good to talk about principles, but in my
heart, I am more concerned about these beautiful creatures having
the space and time to stretch their legs and enjoy themselves
together. They kiss each other with their trunks. You can almost
see them laughing as they go at a slow lope together across the