Eighteen-year-old Abey is unpredictable, has a temper and let his side down badly on Thursday when he lost focus on his polo game in southern Sri Lanka and hospitalized two of his teammates.
The four-ton elephant threw off an American player as well as the Sri Lankan rider directing Abey as the island's sixth annual elephant polo tournament got under way, rampaging off the field and crushing the Spanish team's minibus with his head.
"It's not quite what we were expecting," said hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs, who organized the Ceylon Elephant Polo Association Bowl to help boost upmarket tourism and elephant conservation, as trainers tried to calm the animal.
"I've been playing for seven years and it has never happened before," he added. "He got confused. Elephants are quite short-sighted, and if there are sudden movements in front of them, they can sometimes be unpredictable."
Tranquilizer dart deployed
Spectators rushed out of the enclosure next to the ramparts of a historic 17th Century Dutch Fort in the southern port town of Galle as Abey repeatedly butted the minibus, breaking its windows and wrecking its bodywork.
A vet clutched a tranquilizer dart rifle nearby as trainers tried to control him with sharp sticks and stones.
"I'm not playing again. It's not safe," said visiting American player Courtney Zenz after watching her teammate thrown from the back of the elephant and dangling in the air, her leg stuck in a stirrup.
Elephants are revered in Sri Lanka and used at Buddhist religious ceremonies and local festivals — the main day job for most of the polo-playing elephants chosen from among 110 domesticated animals across the island.
The rest of the Sri Lanka's 3,500-4,000 elephants are wild, roaming in scrub jungle and wildlife parks, and officials are striving to tackle a human-elephant conflict in rural areas, where farmers shoot dead elephants to protect their crops.
In 2006 around 150 elephants were killed and 50 humans were trampled or slammed to death as the animals strayed into villages scavenging for food, Sri Lanka's Wildlife Department says.
Polo a conservation tool?
Visiting Thai elephant conservation expert Prasop Tipprasert says putting the animals to work can help educate the civilian population and pay for costly upkeep, but is not convinced polo is the answer.
"There are many, many ways to conserve elephants," Tipprasert said. "If you want to do this kind of thing, they must know each other very, very well. You really have to do a long, long preparation."
Not all players were deterred by Abey's rampage.
Spanish horseback polo player and horse breeder Inigo de Arteaga is used to injuries.
"You can fall any time, it can be an elephant, pony, a horse. Last year I broke my wrist. Two years ago I broke two ribs," he said, looking at the remains of his minibus, as the tournament beside the Indian Ocean was temporarily called off.
"Doing any sport is always a risk. Let's go surfing."