CHIANG SAEN, Thailand — Somewhere in the pantheon of blue-blood sporting, that exclusive world where men hunt foxes and race yachts, there is a place for polo on elephant-back.
Elephant polo is half sport, half high-society lark. Like its equestrian counterpart, it couples man and creature, adds a ball and long mallets, and engages two teams in a soccer-style scoring match.
But this is where the similarities end and the weirdness begins.
Only in elephant polo can spectators hear the dry hiss of pachyderms brushing hides as they scramble towards a ball. Only in elephant polo does the announcer gush, “What a beautiful under-the-trunk shot.”
Playing elephant polo is a bit like being driven around in a convertible jeep, while sitting on a high chair, and swatting at a ball with a 7-foot-long stick. Which is exactly how oil tycoon Ed Story practices on his Texas ranch.
“If we have to explain it, you’ll never get it,” said Story, CEO of SOCO International, an oil and gas exploration and production company.
Story and his competitors — business magnates, equestrian polo lovers and others — face off several times a year in exotic locales. Their most recent contest was the World Elephant Polo Association’s “King’s Cup,” held last week in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle.
Beside a glittering Mekong tributary, on a pitch spotted with small pyramids of dung, six elephants faced off during each match. It is a game that peaks and wanes. There is sometimes a wild snarl of trunks and clacking of sticks as elephants pursue a fist-sized ball. There are also long bouts when elephants, trunks dragging across the grass, waddle about and squawk.
All of this is narrated in a style typically reserved for racetrack announcers — though with a fine veneer of posh.
“He tries to swing, but there’s a forest of legs!” said David Wilbridge, an announcer, polo sportsman and airplane captain. “And now he’s taken it away from the Dark Horse of Delhi … going around the trunk now … and that’s a lovely under-the-belly shot!”
Like Little League baseball, each team is sponsored. Unlike Little League, the sponsors include IBM, Mercedes Benz and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Sample match: Audemars Piguet, maker of luxury watches vs. Moet & Chandon, maker of luxury champagne.
Elephant polo was invented 27 years ago by two Brits: Former U.K. Olympic bobsled champ and South American treasure hunter, James Manclark, and the recently deceased Jim Edwards, a hotel impresario who by the early 1980s had amassed one of the world’s largest elephant flotillas in Nepal.
According to lore, on April 1, 1982, Manclark sent to Edwards a telex message reading, “HAVE LONG STICKS. GET ELEPHANTS READY.”
Though they’d previously chatted about the possibility of elephant polo over dinner in Switzerland, Edwards took this message as an April Fool’s joke.
Then Manclark showed up with long sticks.
The game has since accumulated strict rules, many of them directed towards the elephants. No lifting the ball with your trunk. No trampling the ball. And no more than two elephants on one half of the field during play.
Four players attacking one ball doesn’t work so well, said Raj Kalaan, an elephant polo forerunner. “Can you imagine the elephants rushing together?” he said. “You can’t get to the ball. Sixteen legs? Impossible! It’s like a shield.”
Elephant polo is, by all accounts, as difficult as it is rare. “We have had sportsmen from across the world come to play,” said veteran Peter Prentice, an executive with scotch whiskey maker Chivas Regal.
“Most of them have struggled,” said Prentice. But elephant polo, he added, “is a box every human being with a flair for life needs to tick.”
Each player works in concert with a “mahout,” a man trained in the dying art of elephant handling. Mahouts, perched barefoot on the elephant’s prickly scalp, steer the creatures by humping the neck and prodding the beast with a small hook.
Once used in tribal battles, more recently used in the timber trade, Thai elephants and their masters now long for work. Many resort to wandering the parts of Bangkok “your wife wouldn’t want you to visit,” as one organizer put it.
These are the neon-drenched, brothel-lined strips in Bangkok where men succumb to charms of bar girls and elephants alike. The mahouts are reduced to charging tipsy tourists $1 for the privilege of feeding elephants unpeeled bananas — and watching the animal chuck the fruit into its droopy maw.
Elephant polo, however, has offered both man and beast a better path. All but two of the 50 or so elephants, who live year-round at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, were rescued from Bangkok along with their mahouts. And during post-game fundraisers, players keep the donations coming. Last week, during one evening gala, they raised more than $56,000.
Resisting the ample flow of good drink — and foisting stiff rounds on opponents — is a crucial element in pre-game “strategy sessions,” according to Story. “We make sure they’re good and drunk,” he said, “even if we’re sober.”
Of those saved from the streets, only the best pachyderms play. Most are backbenchers, lolling by the river and swiping Cessna-sized dragonflies with their tails. But during elephant polo week, even the sideline elephants are fed extra vitamins and high-protein dinners. So pampered are the beasts that, when they make dung piles on the pitch, gloved mahouts rush in to hand-scoop the leavings into trash bags.
“The elephants, this is their moment,” Prentice said. “They’re right here on the mighty banks of the Mekong. They play polo and dive in for a swim. It’s about as good as it gets in the life of an Asian elephant.”
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