The (WEPA) World Elephant Polo Championship

Deep in the heart of the steamy Nepalese jungle; the Himalayas rising up to form a blindingly magnificent backdrop, lies the home to one of the world’s most unique sports. elephant polo!

The idea was famously launched in a bar in St Moritz, Switzerland, by James Manclark a Scottish  andowner and former Olympic tobogganer and Jim Edwards, the owner of Tiger Tops jungle lodge (www.tigertops.com) – where they were both members of the Cresta Club.

It went something like this: Manclark, “My wife was sitting next to us and she said, ‘He’s quite a nice man and he’s got elephants.’” Edwards remembered James turning to him and saying, “you got elephants, let’s play polo.” Jim replied, “buy me a drink and we can play.” James bought him quite a few. back in Nepal, Edwards received a telegram from Manclark on the 1st of April that read: “Have long sticks. Get elephants ready, arriving on Indian Airlines 1st April. regards, James”. This naturally left Jim in a quandary was this, the Scotsman’s idea of an April fool’s joke, or was he serious? He decided to have a field prepared in Meghauly and the elephants, just in case. Much to his surprize, James showed up with not only his wife Patricia, but also a bunch of eager players. elephant polo was born; the date, 1982.

According to Jim, the first game was pretty chaotic: ‘The field was so big, it took a whole day to score one goal, and the foot balls that James thought we could use, were crushed by the elephants!’

It was decided to replace the foot balls with a standard polo ball.

They registered the World elephant Polo Association (WEPA www.elephantpolo.com) with the Sports Council; with the added hope that if ever the olympics came to Nepal, they could enter elephant Polo.

Tiger Tops lodge remains the Headquarters of WEPA and the annual World elephant Polo Championships are held just outside Meghauly village on the original polo field, a strip adjacent to Meghauly airport on the edge of the Chitwan National Park.

It is an invitational event, arranged by Tiger Tops and run under the strict rules of WEPA, which regulates the game and enforces strict rules regarding elephant welfare. Approximately 16 elephants participate in the WEPA Championships every year; half of the elephants belong to the Nepalese National Parks and half to Tiger Tops. Most of the rules of the game are based on horse polo, but the pitch is 3/4 length (because of the slower speed of the elephants – and not to tire them), around 100 x 70 m.

Two people ride each elephant, the mahout who steers the elephant (it helps if you can speak Nepali – as that is the language they understand, plus they have a bond going back years) and the player who hits the ball. Players are also secured in rope harnesses, with a rope across their thighs and rope stirrups; players have fallen off elephants only a few times in WEPA’s 20-year history, and it’s a long way to fall!

Held the end of November, over a week (this year: 27th November – 2nd December, 2011); the game is divided into three levels: the Quarter Final, the Semi-Final and the Grand-Finale. With teams from all over the World; such as: Nepal, UK, Scotland, India, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Australia, America, Switzerland, etc., competing to win the Championship.

This year’s main sponsor will be EFG Switzerland.

Split in to two groups: League A and League B, each have four teams (eight all together) with exciting names like: Pukkas Chukkas, Tiger Tops Tuskers (Kristjan Edwards’s home team), Tickle and the Ivories, Indian Tigers (who used to be known as The Tigress’s), British Gorkha Gladiators, etc.

Each game consists of two 10 minute chukkas (using special polo sticks varying in length up to 102 inches).

Now 10 minutes may not seem like a long time to you and me, but for the elephant that is enough, and that is what is really important.

After the first 10 minute chukka, there is a break for 15 minutes to allow the elephants a rest, after which the players change sides and elephants.

During the game there are strict rules against any harsh treatment of the elephants (ankuses are banned – an old Indian hook used to control elephants). The games also end at Noon so they don’t get too hot; they are also not allowed to play consecutive games. Half time is also snack time, with an hours rest. Sugar cane or rice balls packed with vitamins (molasses and rock salt) are given to the elephants (and special sandwiches) at the end of the match, and a cold beer or soft drinks for the mahouts (but not visa versa).

Although elephant polo was first played in India at the beginning of the 20th Century – possibly as legend has it – by members of the Maharaja’s harem (Zenena) – to keep them busy. The modern game and set of rules originated in Meghauli, Nepal. Some for instance are necessary additions – for instance, it is a enalty for an elephant to lie down in front of the goal line!

Tradition also holds that one group of the lucky players will spot a tiger leaping out of the early morning mist, on the way to the polo field for every tournament.

According to Lucy Monro (Equestrio Arabia), one player: Jason Freidman declared himself the ‘happiest man alive’ that ‘nothing else mattered’ now he had seen a tiger in the wild! When early one morning as he was been driven to the polo field with his team, a tiger leapt out of the misty jungles edge, roaring, and made a charge at the jeep!

Literally thousands pour into the site every year, from villages up to 50 km away; school children whooping with delight and leaping down from the buses, on bicycles, cars, you name it. It is a big annual event for them too: like Wimbledon or the World Cup, or Super Bowl! It’s theirs and they love it. While they sit around the pitch cheering their favourite teams, the VIP guests take their seats in front of the player’s tents.

As Monro says: It brings both a dedicated and wonderfully eccentric group of entrepreneurs, businessmen, bankers, hoteliers, polo players and supporters together each year in one of the most remote and startlingly beautiful places on Earth – to play a game about which all who take part have such a passion! Ringo Starr has played it, and so have Steven Segal, Stephanie Powers and the 13th Duke
of Argyll!!

The players have great names too, like Peter ‘Powerhouse’ Prentice Chairman of WEPA and Captain of the Chivas Regal team; Chief ‘Eighteen’ Wheeler – Captain and founder of the Pukka Chukkas (the Chief lists his hobbies as elephant polo, curry & beer – but not necessarily in that order) and Melanie ‘Snorty
Pukka’ Wheeler (her hobbies are listed as demolition, chocolate and hugging elephants). EFG Switzerland was crowned Elephant Polo World Champions, at last year’s 29th Championship, with a golden goal finish over the UAE SEPOYs With EFGs: ‘golden boy and king of private banking – Robert Mehm’. The Pukka Chukkas winning the WEPA Bronze Quaiche and Best Dressed Team. They also raised $7,500.00 split between the MS Society and the ITNC (The International Trust for Nature – set up in memory of Jim Edwards who sadly passed away in 2009. www.itnc.org).

At 71, James Manclark (co-founder of WEPA with Jim) became the oldest player in the history of the sport to become a World Champion as part of EFG Switzerland team – his 5th World Title; on his birthday (3rd
December).

Fund-raising is an important element to the games: the Pukka Chukkas (www.pukkachukkas.com) raised ver $7,500 with an MS Bicycle Polo Tournament, held after the Championship – 8 teams took to the field for 15 games of ‘frenetic action’, with Afghaniphants ‘triumphing’. The 10 bikes bought were then shared between the ITNC (who used them for checking and placing camera traps for tiger monitoring/ conservation) and local villages.

The BBC came out in 2008, with Bushall interviewing Jim Edwards. To summarize, it was shown how the games have helped transform many people’s lives ‘here’, and is part of a greater conservation project, creating thousands of jobs. The money paid by teams to enter, help build the schools and healthcare in the villages, where malaria once threatened the children’s lives, and has now virtually been eradicated.

Last year 2010, the BBC came out again with Joanna Jolly interviewing Peter Prentice the Chairman of the WEPA (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11921442) where she asked Prentice how elephant polo differs from normal polo. He went on to mention that they were also all there to support elephant conservation and raise money for the local community (raising recently, $200,000 in Thailand). Asked if the elephants enjoyed playing, Prentice said: ‘Well the thing with elephants, the one thing you can be sure about, if they didn’t enjoy playing they wouldn’t play, you know, they are big and strong. They love playing and they are intelligent animals. During week for week they get looked after like kings and queens. They are really spoilt, we feed them beautiful molasses sandwiches and they only play 2 games each, every day. So we look after them very carefully and they love people’.

Out-side of the annual championships, the elephants at Tiger Tops take guests out on wildlife safaris (which are limited in time). During the day, the elephants are also taken out to the fields where their mahouts cut grass for them and bathe them in the river. They receive ‘love, attention and communication and are truly cherished’.

Social events and Partying Jungle Polo Style

The social events that surround the World Championships are also unsurpassed. Throughout the week-long sporting event, Tiger Tops plays host to social gatherings: safari soirees at the edge of the jungle and with ‘black tie and national dress for cocktail parties on the most beautiful lawn on the planet beyond which rhino, elephant and tigers roam; before the aweinspiring backdrop of the Himalaya’ (Monro).

The grand finale being the legendary ‘WEPA Dogleg Dinner Dance’ held in Kathmandu, before the guests return home. A creation of Peter Prentice (Chairman of WEPA), back in 1988; and is one of the most glamorous and sought after invitations in the polo world.

The Asian wild elephant is fast in danger of becoming a thing of the past, due to shrinking habitats and loss of natural corridors to roam; plus, of course as the human population grows, even if territories are extended and their numbers thrive – then there are problems with conflict and destruction of property
and even deaths (bull elephants can be particularly dangerous – one in particular has killed 5 people in the Chitwan recently). The population in the Chitwan National Park though has risen slightly to around 30 – 40 (from around 20). Herds of wild elephant need a vast territory. So in some cases integrating territories where humans and elephants can live together in harmony could be a good thing.

Naresh: “I was recently tracking a rhino on top of a captive elephant, Mahout, which suddenly gave a sign of danger”, says Naresh. “While we were looking around I noticed a big wild bull elephant approaching us. Mahout and I were very scared as a bull elephant had already killed five local people in the southern part of the Chitwan park. Fortunately, the bull was very gentle and I discovered that it was not the same animal. He followed us to our camp and stayed there or the whole night, together with the captive elephants. We never tried to disturb him and we kept quiet, which may have been the reason why he didn’t attack us. I have still many years to work in the jungle for conservation and no elephant or tiger should hurt me!”

Naresh Subedi works for the IUNC Member organization, National Trust for Nature Conservation and is involved in rhino tracking (and other animals) – last year taking part in a tiger census in the Park, where 125 adult breeding tigers were tracked. He also supports anti-poaching activities, and addresses human wildlife conflict issues, and carries out conservation education work – in the vicinity of the park.