Endangered Elephants: Playing Polo For A Better Life (PHOTOS)

10/06/2011 08:26 am ET | Updated Dec 06, 2011

In Thailand, the elephant is a culturally sacred animal and even featured on the provincial seal of the Surin province. Now an animal with such significance is living in squalor. This is mostly a modern consequence of an ancient tradition of Kui spirit men catching and training elephants for many tasks. These Kui spirit men are known as Khru Ba Yai and only five of these men are living today. One of them, Khru Meu, has actually caught a wild elephant using ancient methods. He highlights their significance to the people of Thailand saying, "We can't live without [domestic] elephants, without them we can't be happy."

Traditionally in Thailand, elephants were most commonly trained for logging. While this was last done in an organized fashion in the 1950s, new problems plague domesticated elephants today as a result of ancient practices. Since logging was made illegal in 1989 following a flood in southern Thailand, thousands of elephants were rendered jobless.

Deforestation from logging has destroyed most of elephants' natural habitats and they cannot return to the wild. These elephants can eat of to 500 pounds of food daily, a cost of living that many handlers, known as mahouts, cannot sustain. Consequently many elephants and mahouts have turned to begging on the streets of Bangkok and illegal logging, which is very dangerous.

Elephants in southeast Asia are now an endangered species, with approximately 2,500 captive and 2,400 wild elephants remaining, compared to 50,000 only 40 years ago. With very few options, elephants are being offered an unusual choice for a solution: elephant polo. Founded in 1992 by former Scottish Olympian James Manclark and the late Jim Edwards, who was, until his death in 2009, the proprietor of the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Nepal where the elephant polo championships are held. (The Edwards family now owns the lodge.)

Uday Kalaan, who plays both elephant and regular polo professionally, described the difference between the two. "In elephant polo you have a mahout driving the elephant, in horse polo you do it all yourself. One big difference is you don't have to be a horse polo player to play elephant polo, so anyone can get on one." The Kalaan family founded the Haryana Polo Club (HPC) in 2001, to encouraged people to play polo in India, while providing facilities for playing that meet an international standard.

In Thailand, the Anantara Hotels, which means "without end" in Sanskrit, launched their first of many resorts in the historic and scenic seaside town of Hua Him in 2001. It was here that this beautiful, luxury resort introduced the Kings Cup Tournament, a charitable event to benefit the elephants of Thailand through elephant polo. As the host of the yearly event, Anantara's role in the tournament is consistent with the resort's mission to bring guests closer to the culture and history of Thailand. This hotel is truly a top destination for those seeking a true cultural experience under gorgeous conditions, while supporting a company contributing to animal advocacy. After in raising funds for elephants over the past decade, Anantara's contribution to this cause is much like its Sanskrit translation: endless.

Every year, several fortunate elephants are selected to leave the life of poverty on the streets compete in the King's Polo cup, where they are treated to a life of luxury alongside celebrities and royalty. John Roberts, the official referee of the King's Cup, described the process of bringing these marginalized animals to this event. "We contact a friend of ours in Surin, and we ask him to select the 24 healthiest street elephants. Begging out on the streets is an uncomfortable way of life. We offer them two weeks to come live with us in return for playing polo twice a day, for max 28 minutes a day."

Still widely revered in Thailand, elephants are honored by celebrities, royalty and many enthusiastic spectators during the King's Cup. This year's tournament marked the 10th anniversary of it's inception. Since then, the charitable event has raised more than $300,000 for projects that better the lives of Thailand's elephant population. Such philanthropy is working to ensure that elephants who are not selected to play still benefit from the sport.

John Roberts, the referee, offered details about the three separate charities that the money goes towards. "One is an ongoing project with the Thailand therapy people who are working to help elephants become assistant therapists for autistic kids. A second one is working with the government to set up and elephant hospital, in the south currently there are about 800 elephants with no specialized medical treatment. The third is to work with wild elephants to help conserve them."

While working as a guide for Chitwan National Park in Nepal, Roberts was not initially in intrigued by the elephants. Through polo at the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, Roberts discovered his love for elephants and wanted to ensure they were treated properly. This experience inspired him to create the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, to help elephants unable to help themselves.

Roberts is especially passionate about his charity, which gives both baby and adult elephants a chance at a better life, without having to work on the streets, panhandle or resort to dangerous and illegal activity. Roberts describes this, saying "In the far north of Thailand we have baby elephants that we've brought off the streets, we give them land to play and run and be baby elephants. Then there are some adult elephants that work with us, and when guests come they can ride them and see how it is like for the mahouts and learn more about it." Having about 400 acres, the foundation gives them high energy foods, like bananas and pineapples, and provides them with an environment to thrive in.

As elephant polo helped John Roberts realize is passion for such a cause, we at Animal Fair hope that this sport can continue to improve the quality of life for the elephants of Thailand and the world. For more information on elephant polo please visit If interested in more information on Asian elephants and the charities supporting their plight, got to and

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