Nepali Times Asian Paints
Polo solo


When I first heard there was such a sport as elephant polo I was taken aback. And when the annual deluge of coverage of this sport happens like it did last month, the questions that came to mind were: "why?" and "how"?

I played my fair share of hockey as a kid (which seems to be the cruder north American version of elephant polo) and I was confused. How do you get something the size of a TATA truck to play polo? I see lots of elephants here in Kathmandu, but it\'s always from the backside, stuck in some motorbike jam. So it was hard for me to conceive two teams of these slo-mo mammals zooming as if they were skaters trying to score a goal.

Of course I knew the answer to "how". Elephants are trained to play the sport just as they are trained to do any other task for humans, by being bullied and manipulated, and in many cases tortured.

When I first visited Chitwan National Park, I was a guest at the well-known resort and was literally forced by the host to take an elephant ride. Not wanting to offend, I mounted Limbu, who was the same age as myself, 47, and born in September, so also a Virgo. I had never been that close to an elephant and would have been very content to just feed him some kibbles and stroke his proboscis, which reminded me of my own.

I apologized to Limbu for having to climb aboard the viewing contraption strapped to his back, but I did, squeezing into a wooden basket filled with a half-dozen tourists. The insanity of the situation would have made me laugh, but I got close enough to see Limbu's scars from repeated beatings from his trainer, and to note his battered feet and thighs from being made to crash through the jungle balancing a boatload of humans, and then being punished by his trainer for almost dumping us into a swamp when his leg gave out. At that point he looked a lot older than 47, and his sad tired demeanor was very depressing.

That people would actually organise a sporting event (funded mostly by alcohol manufacturers, and like the sailing sport industry, hosted by a major watch manufacturer) are we really to get out and cheer for our favourite team of polo pachyderms chasing a ball, as in this year's Kings Cup? Haven't we banned pit-bull and cock fights? Haven\'t we got rid of bull-fighting? Aren't rodeo and circus ticket sales way down? Well, sadly not. But all of these human activities do seem very old-school and from a generation past.

Today we seem to be more content watching the World's Stupidest Pet Tricks and The Most Fabulous Animal Rescues on Animal Planet, where our active participation is with the remote control instead of any kind of wicket or ball or out on a field of any kind. The creation of this sport has to do with a simple formula: Humans are urbanising and deforesting the wild habitat of these magnificent mammals faster then animal activists and environmentalists can scream alarm.

Civil unrest in rural areas (normally habituated by elephants) is on the rise worldwide, meaning that conservation areas are becoming disrupted, if not abandoned. In Nepal the conflict turned our parks into war zones, making for a very unhappy place for any being to live, yet they still are organising elephant polo as a last ditch effort to attract tourists. The pressures of human population growth is also pushing animals like elephants to the brink of insanity. Consider the recent news reports from India and Nepal about the shooting of so-called wild killer bull elephants but mostly adolescent teens who were mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.

So why elephant polo, and why now? Here is what I think: to give a new generation of elephants with no place to go and nothing to do a job: the age-old job of amusing human masters and spinning off advertising dollars. It's just another business to replace the lost ivory one. Instead of doing the right thing, preserving dwindling habitats, developing the elephant polo industry looks to be the winning and more profitable ticket for those owning the refugee-elephant population.

And next week, look out for the Elephant Festival in Sauraha where the animals will be forced to play football, take part in 100-metre dash races and the lot. Anything to make these magnificient animals anthropogenic.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)