Why do people play Elephant polo?
This is a question that's best answered in two parts. First, "Why?" Well, that's something mankind will probably never figure out. Second, "Do people play elephant polo?" The answer to that is, Of course. The Ninth Annual World Championships of Elephant Polo were held, in fact, at the Meghauli airstrip, adjacent to Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal, last December, and the 1991 championships are taking place this week at the same site.
While some say that the sport originated in 18th-century Mongolia, and while it was definitely played by maharajas in India in the 1930s, the most recent version of elephant polo dates back only a decade. One evening in the bar of the St. Moritz Cresta Club in Switzerland, James Manclark, a former British bobsled champion and an international polo player, was participating in a grand tradition of clubs everywhere—the razzing of a new member. This particular new member was Jim Edwards, owner of Tiger Tops Lodge. As Manclark remembers, "My wife pulled me over and said, 'You want to be nice to that man. He owns elephants.' I then proposed that we use them for polo. And the rest is history."
Manclark and Edwards thrashed out a draft of elephant-polo rules that very night, with Edwards still thinking that Manclark was kidding. Later, back in Nepal, Edwards received a telegram: ARRIVING KATHMANDU APRIL 1. HAVE LONG STICKS. GET ELEPHANTS READY.
"He was just crazy enough to be taken seriously," says Edwards. "So we staked out a field, rounded up some footballs [soccer balls] and let the games begin."
The soccer balls proved to be a mistake, because the elephants went out of their way to step on them. "They seemed to like the bang," says Edwards. But the matches were successful enough that the players formed the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) in 1982. Regulation polo balls were soon substituted, and the length of the field was reduced, from 300 by 200 yards to 150 by 80. There is an international board of overseers, headquartered at the Tiger Tops, and even a U.S. WEPA chapter, although no game of elephant polo has ever been played on American soil. The sport also has a fat book of rules, sponsors—including Pan Am and J&B Rare Scotch Whiskey—and a waiting list of world-class horse-polo players who wish to compete.
Lest hackles be raised, it should be pointed out that the World Wildlife Fund has declared that the sport poses no threat to the Indian elephants used in the games. Elephants, however, clip along at eight mph during play, and therefore the sport is not without danger for humans. The only restraint holding a player on an elephant's back is a rope that encircles the rider's waist and the elephant's midsection. Because play requires the rider to constantly lean horizontally and because the laws of gravitational pull are the same in Nepal as they are elsewhere in the world, the ropes continuously loosen throughout the course of a match. After a vigorous move, a player might suddenly find himself underneath his mount.
Each player is dependent upon his mahout, or elephant driver, who sits in front of the rider, just behind the elephant's ears. The mahout is responsible for steering the elephant. As a result of a controversy in the 1989 championship game-when somebody on one of the teams allegedly bribed mahouts and fixed the draw of elephants—each elephant-mahout combination must now switch teams at the half.
A match begins when the referee, sitting astride an elephant that's taller than the others, tosses the ball into a center circle. One player from each four-elephant team battles for control while his teammates hold back until the ball clears the circle. From then on it's largely a matter of pursuit, with the added stipulations that 1) each team must always keep one of its elephants in the offensive half of the field, 2) each team must have one goalie elephant, and 3) no rider can intentionally intimidate another rider's elephant.
The game consists of only two chukkers, of 10 minutes' length; in horse polo, there are usually between four and six chukkers, each seven minutes long. But swinging an eight-foot mallet (which is twice the length of its horse-polo counterpart) for 20 minutes is very fatiguing. The most powerful shots are of the spectacular, crowd-pleasing, 360-degree-swing variety.