Jumbo chukkas as Thai elephants take over polo

Thu Mar 25, 2010 4:13am EDT
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By Papitchaya Boonngok

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters Life!) - Once a year, polo takes on jumbo proportions in Thailand, with players mounting elephants instead of horses to help an even bigger cause: saving the country's endangered pachyderms.

Players from 15 countries, including the United States, Britain and Germany, are taking part in the annual elephant polo tournament in the northern province of Chiang Rai which runs until March 28.

The World Elephant Polo Tournament is also held annually in Nepal, but the Thai contest, which began in 2001, is played on a smaller circuit, with proceeds going toward elephant welfare in the country.

Elephants are one of the national symbols of Thailand, which wildlife experts estimate has around 3,600 domesticated elephants and 1,500 wild elephants.

The wild animals' survival is threatened by the destruction of their habitat as well as poachers who cull them for their tusks and drug traffickers who use them as beasts of burden.

Domesticated animals are also often mistreated, with organizers saying many of the polo mounts had been abandoned on Bangkok's streets by handlers who used them to entertain tourists but then decided they were too expensive to keep.

While the mounts are significantly slower, and bigger, than the horses of traditional polo, elephant polo is an equally exciting, and more accessible, sport, players say.

"The horses are very fast but there is a lot of technique in elephant polo which makes it a very interesting game," said Christopher Stafford, founder and president of the World Elephant Polo Association in Thailand.   Continued...