Nepali Times Asian Paints
Hefty responsibility



SWIMMING TRUNK: Elephants were taken out by their mahouts for a leisurely morning bath on the Rapti River in Chitwan last week before their polo game.

Elephants understand up to 40 different commands. But one thing you can't order them to do is to respect you. To win their trust, you must prove yourself worthy. And that means getting up at 4AM to clean the stables and feed them a breakfast of freshly cut grass.

"The elephant does not care for high rank or seniority," Ram Singh Kumal explains with a smile. "It needs to see that you are willing to assist and nurse it-and bring out the dung for at least three weeks."

Kumal has 14 years of experience working with elephants. As senior trainer at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan he is responsible for the elephants' health and well-being.

"It's easy to see if the elephant has a sore stomach because it swells. It's my job to prevent it from swelling in the first place, and we learn from the elephant itself how to treat illnesses," he says. "The elephant knows what to eat in order to get better, so if an elephant looks unwell we let it wander and send a mahout after it to see what of nature's medicine it eats." A certain type of black berry is the cure for stomach aches.

The previous week, Kumal was busy caring for the 17 elephants taking part in the annual Nepal Elephant Polo Tournament. Half of them belong to the Nepal National Parks and half belong to Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge. They have been trained and cared for by skilled mahouts who often will stay with an elephant for many years. Kumal himself lives just opposite the elephant stables and can be with his elephants within a few moments if necessary.


His wife and three sons live in a village about an hour away and he gets to see them six days a month. Elephant polo has strict rules to protect the animals from harsh treatment by their drivers. The games end in the early afternoon so the elephants won't get too tired and hot. No elephant is allowed to play two consecutive games. They have sugarcane snacks and water at half-time and then have an hour to rest.

Kumal says the elephants enjoy the break in routine and social opportunities that the polo offers them. For an elephant, much more important than food is the time off they can spend with friends. Elephants make friends much like humans-by spending time together, eating together, playing and trumpeting together. If two elephants don't get along, the mahouts take great care to ensure they have time together to work things out. Fighting in an elephant stable is best avoided, so there is usually just one male elephant in residence.

At Tiger Tops, the current incumbent is 27-year-old Shumsher Gaj, who sports long tusks and is one of the largest domesticated elephant in South Asia. In the polo tournament he had the important job of carrying the umpire.

For Kumal, the most astonishing thing about elephants is their ability to protect the mahout from danger. If he falls off, the elephant will try to catch him with its trunk. And it will stand over him to protect him from dangers such as an attacking tiger. He has also noticed how the elephant can sense its surroundings and walk in a way that protects its driver from low-hanging branches, even in the dark.

World Elephant Polo 2007

A total of 12 teams competed in this year's World Elephant Polo Association Tournament in Nepal. The Chopard Team from Hong Kong won the final match against Chivas Regal Scotland. Three Nepali-based teams took part: National Parks, the British Gurkas and the Tiger Tops Tuskers. The World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) was founded in 1982 and the tournament has been played annually in Nepal for the past 26 years.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)