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.
"What you will see in elephant polo is men can play, women can play, and children can play even and we have a championship for them here. So, there's lots of options and it's easy for anyone to start. You don't have to be an expert."
Tom Claytor, one of the team captains, said the unpredictability of the game made it even more thrilling than traditional polo.
"You never know who's going to win. Even though you think you have a better team, it can always go either way, cause they're many factors involved," he said.
There are no restrictions on the height, weight or sex of the elephants used in the tournament, but most of the pachyderms are teenagers, with an average age of 15 years.
Each team has three players who ride on their elephants in a 100 by 60 meters (328 by 197 feet) pitch, tossing around a standard-sized polo ball.
The rules are generally similar to traditional polo and just like in the original sport, control of the animal is paramount. A foul is committed if an elephant lies in front of the goal post or picks up the ball with its trunk.
A mahout, or elephant handler, helps the players steer the animals and no more than two elephants from a team can cover half a pitch at a time.
Competition aside, organizers say the tournament helps raise awareness about the status of elephants, which under Thai law, are treated as working animals such as cows or water buffalo.
According to wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC, Thailand still has Asia's biggest illegal ivory market despite promises to crack down on the trade.
The group, in a report issued last year, also questioned Thailand's exports of elephants to other countries and said Bangkok illegally imported elephants for tourism from Myanmar.
Editing by Miral Fahmy