Animal rights activists in India have called on the eve of a controversial tournament for the elite, centuries-old sport of elephant polo to be banned due to what they say is the pain and suffering it causes the animals.
Privileged royals and the rich have been playing the game for hundreds of years in the desert state of Rajasthan, dotted with the fading palaces of once powerful royals, and still stage regular events.
But it has no place in a modern India struggling to spread a message that wildlife must be protected, activists say.
“Elephants are endangered animals in India and they should be respected rather than exposed to cruel and inhuman treatment and made to play games for other people’s entertainment,” said Anuradha Sawhney of the India chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
This weekend, the Elephant Polo Cup, sponsored by Swiss jeweler Cartier and co-organized by the brother-in-law of Britain’s Prince Charles, Mark Shand, will be held in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital.
Blue-blooded members of the aristocracy are expected to rub shoulders with politicians and Bollywood celebrities.
A statement by Shand and his co-organizers said they are staging an alternative to the regular elephant polo matches, which use “ankushes” or sharp iron prods to control the animals.
It also aims to highlight the miserable living conditions of India’s captive elephants, he says, but the event has been attacked by activists.
PETA, backed by leading wildlife groups including the Wildlife Protection Society of India, have called on Cartier to drop the event, which will involve 20 of Jaipur’s 100 captive elephants, used to ferry tourists round the city’s sights.
Animal rights workers say throughout the year the pachyderms are treated inhumanely, subjected to beatings and live in confined and squalid conditions, and the polo matches would add to their suffering.
“Our main concern is that elephants are not made to play games and we would like a complete ban,” Sawhney said.
Chance to 'stretch their legs'
A spokeswoman for Cartier said there was no cruelty involved in the event with the elephants only asked to amble around a field for 10 minutes. In most matches the animals are goaded to run fast in hot sun.
“The elephants otherwise would be chained, standing in excrement, lacking exercise and mental stimulation which they need so much,” said Christine Borgoltz, the firm’s director of external relations in Paris.
“The elephants enjoy being together in a wide open space and being able to stretch their legs.”