ELEPHANTS AND HUMANS: HISTORY, WAR ELEPHANTS, ROYALTY AND POLO

ELEPHANTS AND HUMANS


Elephant on a Roman mosaic

Elephants are the largest animals that have been domesticated by humans. David Montgomery wrote in the Washington Post, “For nearly all of human history, these highly intelligent, largest of land animals have been figures of fascination and function, drafted for service in transportation, warfare, construction, pageantry and entertainment. The first elephant imported to the United States arrived in the 1790s and was promptly put on exhibit. By the mid-1800s, they were popular circus performers.. [Source: David Montgomery, Washington Post, December 16, 2009]

Richard Lair, regarded as an expert domesticated Asian elephants, wrote: “Clearly, a domesticated elephants is simply a wild animal in chains---but a wild animal frequently gentle and intelligent enough to be totally trustworthy as baby-sitter to watch over human infants.”

Humans and elephants have other bonds, Elephants suffer from indigestion, respiratory problems and even have colds like human beings. Zoo elephants have died from herpes and been cured with anti-vital medicines that have cured humans. Wild elephants have also died of elephant herpes. Tetanus is an often fatal disease for elephants.

If an elephant comes chasing after you the best thing to do is run behind a tree or solid, stationary object. If there are trees or solid, stationary objects around...I don't know, run like hell.

Scientists can identify individual elephants by the different shapes of their ears and other makings.They sometimes track elephant from sound of stomach.

Book: Gone Astray by Richard Lair is regarded as the definitive book on domestic Asian elephants. Lair is known as “Professor Elephant.” He trained elephants for the Disney film, Operation Dumbo Drop.

Ganesh

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Ganesh
Ganesh is the Hindu elephant-headed god of prosperity, wisdom, success, intelligence and good luck. Very popular, particularly in Bombay and southern and western India, he is known as the creator and remover of obstacles, bestower of happiness and the eliminator of sorrow. Hindus pray and make offerings to him before beginning a journey, buying a house, starting a performance or launching a business venture. Even other gods pay tribute to him before they engage in any kind of activity so he can remove obstacles.

Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Believed to have evolved from a fertility god, he is often depicted with a huge pot belly, slightly dwarfish, sitting like a Buddha or riding on a five -headed cobra or a rat. He has two or four arms. In one hand he carries rice balls, or sweetmeats (he is fond of eating and especially loves sweets). In another he holds broken pieces of his tusks, with which it said he inscribed the Mahabharata as the sages dictated it to him. Sometimes his trunk rests in a bowl that he hold in one of his hands. Sometimes he carries a trident to indicate his link to Shiva. Other times he carries a noose or an elephant goad. Ganesh’s association with rats comes from the ability of rats to gnaw through anything and remove obstacles.

Ganesh is often the god that people pray for help with their everyday problems. National Geographic nature photographer Frans Lanting wrote that in India: “Statues of Ganesha re everywhere---on car dashboards and in homes. Because of their connections to Ganesh, some people even treat wild elephants that raid their crops with respect. Farmers have even prostrated themselves before a rouge elephant instead of running it off.”

Stories About Ganesh

20120501-Ganesh_mimarjanam.jpg The are several stories explaining how Ganesh obtained his elephant head. According to one he attempted to block Shiva from entering a room where Parvati was bathing. Shiva was angered by this and chopped off Ganesh’s human head. After Parvati made a fuss, Shiva replaced the head with the head of the next animal he saw, which happened to be an elephant.

A popular Ganesh story that Indian parents like to tell their children goes: Ganesh and his brother were challenged to a foot race three times around the world by their mother. Ganesh’s brother took off around the world with lightning speed but Ganesh won by simply circling his parents three times, saying "you are my world."

In September 1995, there were reports of Ganesh drinking milk in Calcutta and Jersey City within hours of each other. Not long after that there reports of Virgin Mary statutes drinking milk in Cheshire, England and Kuala Lumpur.

Elephants and History

Elephants have been "caught, broken, trained and put to work” in Asia for more than 4,000 years. The first elephant species to be tamed was the Asian Elephant, for use in agriculture. The oldest evidence of elephant taming - not full domestication, as they were still captured in the wild---comes from the Indus Valley Civilization, around roughly 4500 B.C.


Harappan stamp from around 2000 BC

There is suggestion that elephants were tamed in ancient Egypt 5,500 years ago. Elephants buried in elaborate tombs, dated to 3500 B.C., were found in cemetery in Hierakonpolisin ancient Egypt. One of the elephant was ten to eleven years old. That is the age when young males are expelled from the herd. Young and inexperienced, they can be captured and trained at that age.

The elephant is a symbol of Buddha and has appeared again and again in many Hindu stories. The Burmese and Thais and other Southeast Asian people believe that at one time all elephants were white creatures that flew through the air. One such elephant, according to legend, flew into the side of Queen Sirimahamaya while she lay dreaming one day, producing the immaculate conception of the Lord Buddha. Hindus greatly revere elephants because of their association with elephant-headed Ganesh, one of the most important Hindu Gods

The number of elephants living in captivity is thought to have been around 130,000 during the era of the Mogul kings in 16th and 17th century. From the 16th to the 19th centuries elephants were used in logging, war and religious ceremonies and were traded throughout Asia by Britain’s East India Company.

According to a famous fable, three blind men came upon an elephant and couldn't figure out what it was. The first man felt an elephant's leg and thought it was a tree; the second garbs its tail and thought it was rope; and third touched the trunk and thought it was a snake.

Among those that avidly hunted African elephants were Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. Roosevelt once killed four elephants in less than five minutes while on safari in British East Africa. You can see two animals in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.

Battle Elephants

Elephants served as armor in ancient battles in Asia. Some regard them as the prototype of tanks. To the sound of drums, warrior with spears advanced on the backs of the elephants while soldiers with swords guarded the animals legs. War elephants sometimes wore heavy armor. They could be force in fighting and take out large numbers of enemy troops by simply crushing them under their feet but they also could become unmanageable if wounded.

There were many military purposes for which elephants could be used. In battle, war elephants were usually deployed in the centre of the line, where they could be useful to prevent a charge or to conduct one of their own. Their sheer size and their terrifying appearance made them valued heavy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they could carry heavy materiel and provided a useful means of transport. [Source: Wikipedia]



An elephant charge could reach about 30 km/h (20 mph), and unlike horse cavalry, could not be easily stopped by an infantry line setting spears. Such a charge was based on pure force: elephants crashing into an enemy line, trampling and swinging their tusks. Those men who were not crushed were at least knocked aside or forced back. Moreover, elephants could inspire terror in an enemy unused to fighting them - even the very disciplined Romans - and could cause the enemy to break and flee. Horses unaccustomed to the smell of elephants also panicked easily. The elephants' thick hide gave them considerable protection, while their height and mass offered considerable protection for their riders. Many generals preferred to base themselves atop elephants so as to get a better view of the battlefield. [Ibid]

In addition to charging, the elephants could provide a safe and stable platform for archers to fire arrows in the middle of the battlefield, from which more targets could be seen and engaged. The archery evolved into more advanced weapons, and several Khmer and Indian kings used giant crossbow platforms (similar to the ballista) to fire long armor-piercing shafts to kill other enemy war elephants and cavalry. The late 16th century AD also saw the use of culverin and jingals on elephants, an adaptation to the gunpowder age that ultimately drove elephants from the battlefield. [Ibid]

In Asia large numbers of men were carried, with the senior commander either utilising the howdah or leading from his seat on the elephant's neck. The driver, called a mahout, was responsible for controlling the animal. In many armies, the mahout also carried a chisel-blade and a hammer to cut through the spinal cord and kill the animal if the elephant went berserk.


Battle between Thai and Burmese


Elephants were further enhanced with their own weaponry and armour. In India and Sri Lanka, heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end were tied to the trunks of war elephants, which the animals were trained to swirl menacingly and with great skill. Numerous cultures designed elephant Armour, aiming to protect the body and legs of the animal while leaving his trunk free to attack the enemy. Larger animals could also carry a protective tower on their backs, called a howdah. [Ibid]

War elephants had tactical weaknesses, however, that enemy forces often learnt to exploit. Elephants had a tendency to panic themselves: after sustaining painful wounds or when their driver was killed they would run amok, indiscriminately causing casualties as they sought escape. Their panicked retreat could inflict heavy losses on either side. One famous historical method for disrupting elephant units was the war pig. Ancient writers believed that "elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of a pig", and the vulnerability was exploited. At the Megara siege during the Diadochi wars, for example, the Megarians reportedly poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy's massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs. [Ibid]

Alexander the Great Battles Elephants in India

The last great battle of Alexander's campaign took place at Jhelum on the Indus River (110 kilometers southeast of present-day Islamabad, Pakistan) against King Porus, a massive leader who it is said to have stood nearly seven feet tall and presided over a kingdom that covered much of the Punjab in present-day India and Pakistan.

In the spring of 326 B.C., Alexander's army engaged King Porus' force of 35,000 infantrymen, 10,000 cavalry and 200 battle-trained elephants. Curtius wrote, “Porus himself rode an elephant which towered above the other beasts. His armor, with its gold and silver inlay, lent distinction to his unusually large physique."

The two forces were opposite each other on different sides of the river and Alexander lead his attack in the night during a thunderstorm so the Indian army wouldn't hear or see him coming. Alexander then concealed part of his cavalry and released the remainder of his army in an attack. Porus committed most army to the Alexander's charging force and left himself vulnerable to an attack from the concealed cavalry.

In the battle the elephants "kept colliding with friends and foes alike," according to Arrian. And after several hours the Indians retreated in wild confusion and Porus was captured. Alexander admired Porus's courage and let him keep his kingdom on the condition he remained loyal to Alexander. Alexander the Great was said to have been rescued from certain death from a charging elephant by a greyhound.

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Hannibal crosses the Rhone by Henri Motte 1878

Hannibal and His Elephants Cross the Alps

From his base in Spain Hannibal led a force of mercenaries with elephants through the south of Gaul (France) and across the Alps in the winter of 218 B.C. This marked the beginning of the Second Punic War. The elephants had little impact on the fight but they scored a psychological blow for the Carthaginians giving them an aura of power and invincibility.

In the Second Punic War, 218-201 B.C., Carthage was anxious to get revenge after the first Punic War. But in the end Rome supplanted Carthage as the predominate power in the Mediterranean. The war was a major milestone in evolution of Rome from a republic into an imperial power.

Hannibal led 59,000 troops and 27 elephants across the Alps. His army crossed the bridge-less Rhone and likely endured snow storms and snow drifts when it crossed the Alps. In some accounts all but one of the elephants and half of Hannibal's soldiers were killed in the Alps.

No one is sure what route Hannibal took. Much of what has been written about the elephants and Alps is speculation. On the subject of Hannibal's route, Mark Twain once wrote: "The researches of many antiquarians have already thrown much darkness on the subject, and it is probable, if they continue, that we shall soon know nothing at all." Much of the imagery of Hannibal and his elephants comes from Flaubert’s Salammbo .

Elephants in Carthage and Rome

Elephants were native to North Africa in Phoenician times. There were elephant farms to produce animals for work and ivory for craftsman. Elephants were introduced into warfare after Alexander the Great and his men encountered them in India. They were part of Carthage’s armies from the third century B.C. onwards.

In the Punic wars a crew of three men were used in battle: archers and potentially men armed with sarissas (six metre long pikes). Experienced Roman infantry often tried to sever their trunks, causing an instant panic, and hopefully causing the elephant to flee back into its own lines. Fast skirmishers armed with javelins were also used to drive them away, as javelins and similar weapons could madden an elephant. Elephants were often unarmoured and vulnerable to blows to their flanks, so Roman infantry armed some sort of flaming object or with a stout line of pikes, such as Triarii would often attempt to make the elephant turn to expose its flank to the infantry, making the elephant susceptible to a pike thrust or a Skirmisher's javelin. [Source: Wikipedia]

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Hannibal crosses the Alps

Rome brought back many elephants at the end of the Punic Wars, and used them in its campaigns for many years afterwards. The conquest of Greece saw many battles in which the Romans deployed war elephants, including the invasion of Macedonia in 199 BC, the battle of Cynoscelphalae 197 BC, the battle of Thermopylae, and the battle of Magnesia in 190 BC, during which Antiochus III's fifty-four elephants took on the Roman force of sixteen. In later years the Romans deployed twenty-two elephants at Pydna in 168 BC. They also featured throughout the Roman campaign against the Celtiberians in Hispania and against the Gauls. Famously, the Romans used a war elephant in the invasion of Britain, one ancient writer recording that 'Caesar had one large elephant, which was equipped with armor and carried archers and slingers in its tower. When this unknown creature entered the river, the Britons and their horses fled and the Roman army crossed over.” [Ibid]

African elephants were used by Hannibal of Carthage. It had long been thought that Asian but north African elephants could be tamed. Experiments in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana have showed that African elephants can be tamed. The tame elephants are trained when they are young. They are orphans whose mother was skilled by poachers. They are often very attached t their human caretakers. Park rangers in Zimbabwe ride elephants on anti-poaching patrols. They have plans to use the animals to plow rocky, hard fields that other animals can't tackle.

Some circus elephants are African elephants. In Botswana a guide has trained a former circus-elephants to take tourists on safari as Indian elephants in India and Nepal do. "Upon command," writes Gail Phares who went on a safari on an African elephant, "the elephants got down on the knees and a staff member provided his knee for us to step on as we climbed up on top of the elephant and into the howdah (box saddle). The mahout then alerted us when the elephant was about to get up. We hung on to the sides of the howdah as we tipped backward and then lurched forward. It is not dangerous or frightening as along as you are prepared when the mahout gives the order...During 3- to 4- morning and afternoon game drives we tried several positions to give our leg and muscles a change. We sat with legs in front of us or with one leg out on each side under the frame or with our legs crossed under us. There was a small compartment behind.”

War Elephants in Ancient and Medieval Asia


The Han Dynasty of the 2nd century BC fought against Yue kingdoms of South East Asia ( ancient Vietnamese) that did employ war elephants. Common tactics used to repel these elephants included massed crossbow or artillery fire, and digging pits or trenches filled with spikes. Sri Lankan history records indicate elephants were used as mounts for kings leading their men in the battle field, with individual mounts being recorded in history. The elephant Kandula was King Dutugamunu's mount and Maha Pambata, 'Big Rock', the mount of King Elara during their historic encounter on the battlefield in 200 BC, for example. In Southeast Asia, along the borders of in modern day Vietnam, the Champan army employed up to 602 war elephant against the Sui Chinese. The Sui troops led the elephants into a trap of falling into deep pits dug by them, also making extensive use of crossbows. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Mongols faced war-elephants in Khorazm, Burma, Vietnam and India throughout the 13th century. Despite their unsuccessful campaigns in Vietnam and India, the Mongols defeated the war elephants outside Samarkand by using catapults and mangonels, and in Burma by showering arrows from their famous composite bow. Genghis and Kublai both retained captured elephants as part of their entourage. Another central Asian invader, Timur faced similar challenges a century later. In 1398 Timur's army faced more than one hundred Indian elephants in battle and almost lost because of the fear they caused amongst his troops. Historical accounts say that the Timurids ultimately won by employing an ingenious strategy: Timur tied flaming straw to the back of his camels before the charge. The smoke made the camels run forward, scaring the elephants, who crushed their own troops in their efforts to retreat. Another account of the campaign reports that Timur used oversized caltrops to halt the elephants' charge. Later, the Timurid leader used the captured animals against the Ottoman Empire. [Ibid]

It is recorded that King Rajasinghe I, when he laid siege to the Portuguese fort at Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1558, had an army of 2200 elephants. The Sri Lankans had continued their proud traditions in capturing and training elephants from ancient times. The officer in charge of the royal stables, including the capture of elephants, was called the Gajanayake Nilame, while the post of Kuruve Lekham controlled the Kuruwe or elephant men---the training of war elephants was the duty of the Kuruwe clan who came under their own Muhandiram, a Sri Lankan administrative post. [Ibid]

In the Southeast Asia, the powerful Khmer Empire had come to regional dominance by the 9th century AD, drawing heavily on the use of war elephants. Uniquely, the Khmer military deployed double cross-bows on the top of their elephants. With the collapse of Khmer power in the 15th century, the successor region powers of Burma (now Myanmar) and Siam (now Thailand) also adopted the widespread use of war elephants. In many battles of the period it was the practice for leaders to fight each other personally on elephants. [Ibid]

One famous battle occurred when the Burmese army attacked Siam's Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The war was concluded when the Burmese crown prince Minchit Sra was killed by Siamese King Naresuan in personal combat on elephant in 1593. Farther north, the Chinese continued to reject the use of war elephants throughout the period. According to journalist Douglas Chadwick Thailand Burma "not only fought epic battles with elephants...it was once fought because of them. When word reached a Burmese king that seven white elephants had been found and sent to the Thai monarch, he was overcome with jealousy and mounted an invasion."←

White Elephants

Among the Thais and other peoples of Southeast Asia, white elephants are regarded as symbols of power and fertility. According to Buddhist lore the Buddha’s mother Queen Mahamaya dreamed of white baby elephant at the conception of Lord Buddha. The discovery of white elephants in the wild is a major event that causes a big stir in the countries of Southeast Asia. This is stark contrast to the West where the expression “white elephant” describes an expensive but useless thing.

White elephants are regarded as the most auspicious of all animals in Laos, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia as far back as anyone can remember. They have been sought after and the object of envy. Kings added possession of them to their titles. Great empires have gone to war over them.

The royal "white elephants" in Thailand are in fact are pinkish brown or with some whitish markings. They are often difficult to distinguish from normal elephants. Only one looks genuinely pale. The others look like normal elephants. Their proper name is chang samkan, meaning “important” or “significant” elephant. Most are not albinos, which are usually whitish beige.

In 2004, a beige-colored albino elephant was discovered in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. It was a female believed to be around 11 years old. It is extremely rare to find such an animal. There have been reported sightings of such elephants in Thailand and other places put this marked the first time ever that an the existence of a true albino elephant had been confirmed.

Thailand’s Royal White Elephants


Royal Coat of Arms for Laos

Thailand had 11 “white” elephants in the early 2000s. Symbols of the monarch’s power, all belonged to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The person with the most white elephants is considered the most powerful person in Thailand. The elephants existence and good health ensure prosperity for the Thai kingdom. They are regarded as the earthly manifestation of Erawan, the many-headed celestial elephant of the god Indra.

Only one royal elephant lives behind the royal moat in the royal palace in Bangkok. Others live at other facilities elsewhere in Thailand. Some royal elephants are kept at the elephant center in Lambang, where four attendants are assigned to each anima and the animals spend their day munching on leaves of replanted teak trees, are hand fed sugar cane and tamarind and have a reservoir where they can take their daily baths. At night they sleep in the their individual sleeping pavilions.

Chadwick found the animals in the darkness of a gilded pavilion, "surging back and forth at the end of a chain, his strange pale eyes blue one moment and green the next, alone, colossal, and very likely insane. Thrice this great mad elephant trumpeted wildly in alarm, I was told. Each time the king was threatened by danger, including an attempted coup.←

Determining Royal Thai Elephants


What exactly defines a white elephant is the subject of large body of literature. They are not white or albino. They are rare, light-toned animals that must have a particular set of characteristics to be labeled as white. The criteria to define a white in elephant in Thailand is secret and takes experts weeks to sort out.

The basic requirements for a white elephant are that it must have some “white” skin (pink splotches on the skin), white eyes, a white upper palate, white nails, white fur, white tail hair and a white scrotum. In Thailand white elephants are supposed to be treated with the same respect accord royal children.

By law every white elephant born in Thailand must be presented to the king. Prospective candidates are chosen not only on the basis of pink skin splotches but also on the shape of their trunk and tail, the quality of their vocalizations and even the smell of their dropping. The royal families in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia used to keep white elephants but the custom has largely died out there along with the power of the royal families.

"To an inexperienced man they may look like normal elephants," the overseer of ceremonies at the Royal Palace in Bangkok told National Geographic. "But I have studied them all my life to be able to tell you about their special qualities: a certain shape to their ankles and tail. A whiteness of the eyes, the hair tops, the white skin between folds, and the nails. The greatest of all elephants has two extra toe nails. He is of the same rank as a prince." The name of this cherished elephant has a name four lines long, proclaiming him to be a lotus-colored gift.

Royal Elephant Stories

Stories about white elephants describe them living like Roman emperors on the palace grounds where they were protected from the sun with silk umbrellas and fed fruit on jewel encrusted platters while court musicians entertained them. Young elephants were said to be suckled by human wet nurses.←

A jealous Burmese rulers declared war against Siam when a Thai king refused a request to give the Burmese ruler two of his seven white elephants. In the 17th century, a Dutch chronicler. Described a Thai monarch who staged an elaborate cremation ceremony for the elephant and ordered the execution of any keeper responsible for the death of a baby white elephant.

In the old days the elephants used to walk down the streets of Bangkok every morning on their way to the river for a bath. The only time this routine was changed, according to an old National Geographic article, was during rutting season when male and female elephants were separated. Bangkok's trolley drivers didn't like this because the male elephants often mistook trolleys for female elephants, often taking off after the trolleys and making a big racket and fuss as they did so. Most trolley drivers were skilled and experienced enough to outrun the run the elephants.

In the early 2000s, plans were announced to clone the famous white elephant that belonged to King Rama III, who ruled from 1824 to 1851.

Elephant Polo


Before a polo match

Claire Cozens of AFP wrote: Elephant polo is “a game that was dreamt up almost 30 years ago over drinks at a Swiss ski resort and now attracts adventure-seekers from all over the world to Nepal, where the world championships are held every year. The game, loosely based on horse polo, involves two teams of four players sitting astride elephants driven by mahouts, or trainers, who drive them on using oral commands and pressure from their feet. Players carry sticks up to 96 inches (2.5 metres) long to hit the ball towards the opposing goal, with each game comprising two 10-minute chukkas. The umpire sits on the biggest elephant, a huge, long-tusked bull, giving him a bird's-eye view of the game. [Source: Claire Cozens, AFP, December 5, 2010]

“The game can be surprisingly quick, with the smaller, more nimble elephants deployed in attack and the larger ones playing defence, using their bulk to block the goal. And it is taken very seriously by some players. Umpire Yadav Bantawa reports teams using the larger elephants to block his view of illegal moves such as hooking an opponent's stick to prevent him from hitting the ball. [Ibid]

“Dan Bahadur Tamang, who has worked with elephants since 1969, told AFP it wasn't hard to train them to play polo. "They love it. When you watch the game you can see how fast they run towards the ball," he says. "They really know what they're doing now, and they are very clever. They can be taught up to 1,000 oral commands." The elephants are fed at the end of each match and treated to molasses sandwiches to keep their strength up. A team of workers is kept busy throughout each match scurrying onto the pitch to scoop up dung. [Ibid]

“The sport attracts players of all ages and nationalities but like horse polo, this is an expensive sport---the entry fee alone runs into thousands of dollars---and the world championship attracts a wealthy and glamorous crowd.” At the game on Nepal in 2010, “Miss Nepal was joined in the audience by former crown prince Paras, who flew in with a large entourage on his private helicopter to watch a few chukkas. But local people also flock to attend the spectacle, most of them supporting the team put together every year by the park warden and his staff, who work with elephants every day on their patrols and are often among the top performers. "We are so lucky to have a world championship on our doorstep," local farmer Kul Narayan Shrestha told AFP. "It's a really fun day out." [Ibid]

History of Elephant Polo

Scotsman James Manclark, a keen horse polo player who was 71 in 2010, is credited with inventing elephant polo in the 1980s. Claire Cozens of AFP wrote: “He came up with the idea in St Moritz over a drink with Jim Edwards, a pioneer of eco-tourism in Nepal who ran a resort called Tiger Tops deep inside the jungle that used elephants to take guests on safari. Shortly after their encounter, Manclark sent his friend a telegram that read simply: "Arriving April 1 with long sticks. Have elephants ready." "He didn't know whether I was being serious or not. But I arrived, with the sticks and two small footballs, ready to play," Manclark told AFP[Source: Claire Cozens, AFP, December 5, 2010]

The experiment got off to a bad start when the elephants decided it was more fun to stamp on the footballs and burst them than to chase them around the pitch. Fortunately, regular polo balls proved more successful, and elephant polo was born. The World Cup, organised by Tiger Tops, is held every year at a grass airstrip on the edge of Nepal's Chitwan national park, 90 kilometres (56 miles) southwest of Kathmandu.

Official elephant polo games are played three times a year---in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal. In Thailand the games are played with three elephant on each team . In Nepal, which has a larger field, there are four on each team. . Each team member is accompanied by a mahout---or elephant driver -- who steers as the players focus on hitting the ball. The players come from all over the world while the elephants are provided in the place where the game is played. There were 12 national teams competing in 2006 the first year the Americans played. None of the teams has year-round access to elephants. The Germans practice atop Volkswagen vans and have several have internationally recognized horse polo players on their team. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, September 10, 2006]

Elephant Polo Game

Describing a game in Nepal, Claire Cozens of AFP wrote: “On a remote jungle airfield in southern Nepal, the tension is rising as the finals of one of the world's most eccentric sporting events goes into extra time at a nailbiting five-all. Within minutes, a giant elephant rumbles towards one end of the field and a cheer goes up from the crowd as a tiny white ball shoots between the goalposts, winning the game for the team from Switzerland. [Source: Claire Cozens, AFP, December 5, 2010]

Describing a game in Thailand, Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post, “During America's debut in the extra-wide world of elephant polo, frustrated U.S. captain Kimberly Zenz nearly screamed herself hoarse. The prime pachyderms toting the rival Italians were dominating the opening match, while Thong Kao-- Zenz's languid charger -- seemed more interested in turning the grassy polo field into an afternoon snack. But as the ball skidded dangerously close to the Italian goal posts, something suddenly seemed to stir from deep inside Thong Kao. She hurled her three-ton bulk toward that ball like Barbaro on steroids. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, September 10, 2006]

From the sidelines, international playboys almost choked on their gin and tonics. British aristocrats looked up from their Rolexes, cocking eyebrows with bemusement. For a moment at the King's Cup Elephant Polo Championship -- one of the circuit's Big Three -- it seemed the upstart Yanks from the Washington area might finally charge onto the scoreboard. Then something really did stir from deep inside Thong Kao. She let rip a hail of dung that left the pursuing Italians dodging for cover.

And just as Zenz yanked back her mallet, Thong Kao accidentally stepped on the polo ball, squashing it into the ground and suspending play. It marked the first of many lessons for a team of rookie Americans who came to the emerald hills of the Golden Triangle this week for a crash course in one of the world's most surreal sports.

During one game in Sri Lanka one 2000-kilograms mount went berserk in mid-match and threw off his rider and charged off the field and attacked the Spanish team’s minibus. The vehicle was badly damaged. Fortunately nobody was in it.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2012

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