Elephant polo debate overshadows introduction of microchipping

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2007:
BANGKOK, MUMBAI–The Tourism Authority of Thailand on
Nov-ember 19, 2007 named the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament one
of Thai-land’s must-see “Seven Amazing Wonders.”
The announcement reignited a debate over elephant polo that
has raged for more than two years through the Asian Animal Protection
Network electronic forum. Opponents, chiefly in the northeast of
India, where elephant polo has never been played, hold that the
game is cruel exploitation. Others see it as a chance for the
elephant participants to enjoy a day of light work on grass, as a
pretext for affluent humans to party.
The game itself consists of only two ten-minute chukkars,
in contrast to the elephants’ usual daily labor of either hauling
tourists or waiting for customers.

Heated in India, the AAPN discussion of elephant polo
appears to have attracted little interest from Thailand, nor much
notice from other places where elephants commonly work.
Partly, this may be because of astute public relations by
elephant polo promoters. The King’s Cup is named in honor of King
Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Ceremonially reigning over Thailand for 60 years, the
79-year-old king and his wife, Queen Sirikit, have long been animal
advocates. Protecting elephants, the Thai national animal, is part
of their ceremonial role.
Because the King and Queen are protectors of elephants, but
have not spoken against elephant polo, the King’s Cup tournament is
perceived as having royal approval.
As 2004 King’s Cub tournament attendee Judith Ritter
explained to readers of the Toronto Globe & Mail, “While the king
never actually shows up, he does give his official blessing.”
Like most elephant polo events, the King’s Cup tournament
benefits an elephant charity. The King’s Cup beneficiary is the
National Elephant Institute in Lampang. The institute works for the
benefit of both the 1,500 wild elephants believed to be in Thailand
and the estimated 2,500 captive elephants.
Some of the captive elephants–like the polo elephants–are
mostly ridden by visitors. Others are used in logging and for other
heavy pulling and lifting. As tractors have gradually displaced
logging elephants, many wander city streets, begging with their
mahouts. Bangkok banned elephants from the city streets in 1992,
but as many as 50 reportedly still elude confiscation, plodding
through back streets near tourist areas.
Older working elephants in Thailand were traditionally
retired to Buddhist temples, where they spent their last years as
visitor attractions. Though temple elephants are still abundant
throughout Southeast Asia and India, relatively few temples can
afford to house and feed an elephant, and the number of elephants in
need of sanctuary greatly exceeds the availability of appropriate
temple facilities.
Since the World Elephant Polo Association formed in Nepal in
1982, the sport spread to Jaipur, India; Sri Lanka; and reached
Thailand when the King’s Cup tournament was organized in 2001. The
first seven editions of the annual King’s Cup tournament have raised
more than $175,000 for the National Elephant Institute.
The chief concern of the Thai Nat-ional Parks, Wildlife &
Plant Conservation Department about captive elephants in recent years
has been illegal trafficking. Owning an elephant can be costly, but
either selling an elephant abroad or selling the ivory from a
deceased elephant can be quite lucrative.
In addition, there is suspicion that crop-raiding elephants
are being captured and “laundered” through being sold to other parts
of Thailand–or the world–under the identities of captive elephants
who have already been exported, either alive or dead.
The National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation Department
in August 2007 announced new regulations governing the export of live
elephants and body parts, but stopped short of introducing mandatory
microchipping and an elephant DNA data base, as some elephant
advocates sought.
Incidents bringing elephant trafficking to public attention
included the export of eight elephants to Australian zoos in July
2006, after 15 months of controversy, public protests, and
attempted legal interventions led by Friends of the Asian Elephant,
and the March 2007 interception of two elephants who were allegedly
being smuggled into Thailand from Myanmar. Five men who were caught
in possession of the elephants said they planned to sell them to Thai
India is already moving toward microchip identification of
all of the estimated 3,600 captive elephants in the nation, about
1,000 of them in Assam, in the extreme northeast, and 900 in
Kerala, in the southwest.
The Delhi city wildlife department and Wildlife SOS began
microchipping elephants in 2006. “Last year, 20 animals were
tagged,” Wildlife SOS cofounder Kartick Satyanarayan told Bindu
Shajan Perappadan of The Hindu in October 2007. The remaining
elephants were microchipped before Satyana-rayan spent much of
November 2007 on a speaking tour of the U.S. and Mexico.
“We hope to be able to gradually cut off the illegal supply
of elephants to Delhi,” Satyanarayan said. “Also, we will become
able to monitor the working hours of the domesticated elephants in
the city.”
In Kochi, far to the south, several separate programs
reportedly microchipped as many as 40 elephants in 2006 and early
2007. City officials in April 2007 announced a plan to license
elephants, but seven months later had not followed up, according to
The Hindu.
Tamil Nadu in April 2007 initiated microchipping elephants by
chipping six privately owned elephants at Uttamarkovil, and then
chipping the temple elephants at Rockfort, Samayapuram and Srirangam.
In Kerala the drive to microchip captive elephants got a
boost from five elephants running amok in four months at the
Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple in Thiruvanathapuram. Elephant Lovers
Associ-ation secretary V.K. Ven-kitachalam asserted that at least one
of the elephants was overworked on the day he went berserk, and had
worked with three different ill-trained mahouts in three years.
Improved identification of elephants could help law
enforcement agencies to recognize such problems in advance of
But as in Thai-land, the major use of microchipping
elephants in India is expected to be tracking illegal sales.
Opponents of elephant trafficking won a round in August 2007
when the Kerala High Court upheld a Kerala state government ban on
importing elephants from other states.
The Elephant Owners’ Association “argued that there was a
dearth of elephants in Kerala,” recounted the Deccan Herald, while
“the government counsel countered this, saying that the State’s
pachyderm population was saturated,” and attributing “many incidents
of elephants attacking mahouts and the public in recent months,
several of them resulting in deaths,” to the arrival of poorly
trained elephants believed to have been captured in Bihar state, far
to the north.
The Bihar elephants are conspicuous because they do not
respond to commands in Malayalam, the major language of Kerala and
adjacent states. As many as 50 Bijar elephants are believed to have
recently passed through Kerala on their way to work in Karnataka. In
May 2007 a Bihar elephant reportedly turned up in Pondicherry–almost
as far from Bihar as an elephant could go and still be in India.
The Kerala High Court ruled against further elephant imports
on the same day that Kerala began microchipping the resident
elephants. Thirteen elephants were chipped the first day, the
Deccan Herald said, ranging in age “from three-year-old Unnikuttan
to 95-year-old Gangadharan.”
Attempts to keep Indian working elephants out of dangerous
places and potentially abusive work received a setback in June 2007,
when the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court overturned a May 2005
order by the principal chief conservator of forests and chief
wildlife warden which had prohibited using captive elephants in
marriage ceremonies, temple festivals, and logging.
Reported The Hindu, “Justice K. Suguna ruled that it was
unreasonable to impose a blanket ban on employing pachyderms,” but
Suguna allowed elephant use to be regulated in a “reasonable” manner.
Barely a month later, however, the Maharashtra state
forestry department banished elephants from within the Mumbai city
limits altogether. “We want to keep the poor elephants off city
roads. It is sad to see them walking with traffic going past,”
explained a senior Maharashtra forestry official to Ramola Talwar
Badam of Associated Press.
“Before the ban,” Badam wrote, “14 elephants worked in
Mumbai. They begged for their handlers, participated in religious
ceremonies, or became status symbols at weddings. Police were
forced to release an elephant handler who was arrested after the ban
went into effect,” Badam added, “because there was no way to look
after the elephant, who spent five hours chained outside the police
station. The 13-year-old elephant named Laxmi and her handler went
free after the handler signed a statement promising to take Laxmi out
of the city.”
The Maharashtra government has announced plans to build a
captive elephant rehabilitation center in the Nashik forests, about
125 miles northeast of Mumbai.
Assam state chief wildlife warden M.C. Malakar in August 2007
asked police and district forest officials to prohibit use of
elephants to perform tricks or beg.
Malakar acted about one month after two domesticated
elephants, a male and a female, on July 24, 2007 went on a
20-kilometer rampage near Cachar, killing seven people from five
villages in Assam before crossing into Mizoram. There the elephants
killed one more person before Mizoram state police shot them.

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