The World Elephant Polo Championships were born in 1982 in Chitwan in Nepal, the brainchild of two men whose life stories read as swashbuckling tales of derring-do straight from the pages of a Boy’s Own manual. One made his fortune selling Mother Theresa Silver Dollars in Aden and went on to become an Olympic tobogganer and the other drove a Saab from Stockholm to Kathmandu in 1961, stopping and settling in the Nepali capital in 1962 because he thought it seemed a fun place.
The two met in St Moritz where both were riding the Cresta Run. Polo, as well as speed boat racing and around the world ballooning numbered among the tobogganer’s sports and the Saab driver had by that point established the world’s first eco-tourism resort and owned a full herd’s worth of domesticated elephants. He’d also developed a polo habit. Joining the dots was easy.
“Arriving April 1st with long sticks, have elephants ready”, read the now legendary telegram sent by James Manclark from Jaipur to AV Jim Edwards at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan in early 1982.
Jim got his elephants ready. Well… not really ready, they weren’t trained to play polo but that would come. “It took us five years to get close to any semblance of an ordered game and ten years to perfect it”, he would recall with the modesty of a man who ultimately succeeded.
“The first year was a disaster. The pitch was too big and it took half an hour to get from one end to the other. The sticks kept breaking and the elephants burst the balls.”
Rising to the challenge as the pioneers they were, Jim and James were undeterred by the teething problems of their new sport. They founded the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) later that same year and produced a rule book for the game they developed. While the inaugural tournament had been played by just two teams, James’ Jaipur Gold Cup squad and Jim’s Tiger Tops quartet, the second edition saw four teams compete for the world title and in 1984 eight teams journeyed to Nepal.
Three decades later elephant polo is a world renowned sport with the world championships contested each year by eight, and on occasions up to twelve, teams. Rock stars, Hollywood celebrities and aristocrats have played at WEPA. Hillary Clinton and Cameron Diaz have been to Tiger Tops. Stephanie Powers, Ringo Starr, Billy Connolly, Steven Segal… the list goes on. Elephant polo is a sport with cache.
Inspired by WEPA, tournaments were also established in Sri Lanka and Thailand with the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament hosted annually by Anantara now numbering among the top ten sporting events in Thailand.
The Holy Grail of elephant polo remains the World Championships and it is now to western Nepal (following the tournament’s move from Chitwan to Karnali a few years ago) that an exclusive group of slightly eccentric but resolutely sporting characters make their annual pilgrimage to the jungle each year in pursuit of one of the rarest world titles of them all.
So what’s needed? You don’t need your own elephant. Neither do you need your own team, although it helps. You can apply to the organisers to play the tournament as an individual which means you will be assigned to one of the home teams. This is fun and a very good way to experience the sport for the first time but the best way to embrace elephant polo is to create your own team.
A few years ago a team of New Yorkers prepped for the world championships by riding around car parks on the roofs of 4X4s. An international expat posse known as the Pukka Chukkas flies in from Australia every year, as did Aussie fast food magnate ‘Hungry Jack’ a few years ago complete with a team and a Channel 9 film crew in tow. Having a sponsor helps, as entry fees and travel costs mount up, but isn’t essential. What’s vital is great kit and a superb team name. Elephant polo sports sophisticated branding with some of the best teams boasting considerable sponsorship and established presences on social media platforms. EFG International has fielded the winning team three times in recent years and also supports the world’s leading all-girl squad Tigresses Polo winners of this years title. Chivas was title sponsor of the world championships for more than a decade and brands such as Audemars Piguet, Citi, Johnnie Walker and Louis Roederer are regular investors in the Thai tournament. Elephant polo is BIG sport with recognised value to corporate brands. It’s also a huge fundraiser for a variety of charities and one of the most important forces worldwide driving elephant conservation and veterinary programmes.
Interested. What better way to travel than with the aim of going home a world champion? It’s not every holiday that offers the possibility of a world title as a souvenir…