BANGKOK - It was arguably the world’s most unusual polo event - a competition where organizers hope the ultimate winners will be Thailand’s often-abused working elephants.
Thirty-two captive-born elephants participated in the King’s Cup tournament on fields drenched by heavy and incessant rainy-season downpours over the weekend.
Every team consisted of three of the huge creatures, each guided by their keeper, or mahout. The players perched behind the mahout, giving urgent directions usually in a language completely incomprehensible to the elephant’s guide.
Still, mahout and elephant soon got into the spirit, lumbering after a white ball that seemed even smaller beside the three-ton creatures.
Polo might be called the sport of kings, but that refers to the fast-paced version played on horseback. Elephant polo is played at a somewhat slower tempo.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of elephants in Thailand with sorry stories"
Partly as a result of that, “there’s a lot of skill involved with the stick,” said Ed Story, a Texas oilman, captain of the Elephant Story team and a big donor to elephant charities.
High spirits reigned but the tournament’s aim was serious -- raise money to help elephants, according to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, one of the organizers.
“Domestic elephants in Thailand are basically unemployed,” said Bill Heinecke, who heads the Anantara hotel group and is the founder and host of the King’s Cup. “We give them medical treatment, we feed them well and look after them.”
There are thought to be around 2,700 domesticated elephants in Thailand. But with the outlawing of logging, there’s not a lot for them and their mahouts to do, and many are forced to beg on city streets.
Others are employed in the country’s tourism and trekking industry, where conditions can be very poor.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of elephants in Thailand with sorry stories,” said John Roberts, who heads the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, and served as a somewhat bedraggled referee for most the tournament.
As well as raising awareness, the King’s Cup has made almost $1 million over the last 13 years for projects that include shelters, elephant ambulances, clinics and education programs in elephant conservation. One new project involves elephant therapy sessions for children living with autism.
While earnest in its aims, the tournament has become a glamorous event, a place to be seen. This year a jazz band and string quartet played as guests sat sipping champagne in a string of hospitality tents. The rainy season did present a challenge to the fashion conscious, as high heels sank into the soggy ground, and spotless white outfits were soon splattered with mud.
The conditions also led referee Roberts to abandon some games and replace them with penalty shootouts.
“The welfare of the elephants comes first,” he said.
At one point Roberts moved the games inside a sandy arena usually used by ponies. The white ball was replaced by a larger orange one. But one group of elephants ignored urgent instructions of the players on their backs and instead started to play soccer, as they’d been taught in a tourist camp.
There was even an exhibition game that pitted a team from the Miss Tiffany transgender cabaret against former New Zealand rugby players. The elephants proved to be a great leveller and the beefy All Blacks in their trademark rugby jerseys could only scrape a 1-0 victory against the red chiffon-clad dancers.
It all ended with trophies for the players and a huge lunch – for the elephants. They seemed to enjoy themselves, which at the end of the day is what it was all about.