When the Pachyderms Play

Originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 18, 1997.

Something strange is afoot deep in the heart of the Royal Chitwan National Park in Southern Nepal.

Gigantic ghostly shapes appear briefly before vanishing again into the thick early morning mist that blankets the jungle. The earth trembles as eight massive four-tonne Asian elephants charge at full speed across a grassy field, and the air rings with the piercing cries of mahouts (elephant drivers) urging on their mounts. As the tropical sun begins to burn off the mist, the spectacle is slowly revealed in all its eccentric glory: the World Elephant Polo Championships have begun.

The championships are an annual invitational event organized jointly by the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) and the Tiger Mountain Group. They attract an unlikely mixture of professional sportsmen, celebrities, mountain climbers, tycoons and adventurers from all corners of the globe, together with hundreds of enthusiastic spectators from local villages. Past players have included Ringo Starr Sir Edmund Hilary, actress Stephanie Powers and commedian Billy Connolly, and the championships have been sponsored by such blue-chip companies as British Airways, Cartier, Citibank and International Distillers.

First-time participants are often surprised that elephant polo was only conceived as recently as 1981 instead of dating back to the days fo the British Raj. However, in true colonial style, the original idea arose during a chance encounter in a bar. James Manclark, a Scottish landowner and international horse-polo player, was introduced to Jim Edwards of Tiger Mountain over cocktails in the St. Moritz Toboganning Club in Switzerland. When Manclark discovered that Edwards actually owned elephants, he suggested that elephant polo might be much more exotic and exciting than ordinary horse polo. Despite drawing up a provisional set of rules that evening, Edwards didn't really take the matter seriously until early 1982 when he received a telegram from Manclark advising: "Arriving Kathmandu April 1. Have long sticks. Get elephants ready."

The first WEPA championships were marred by teething problems. Some of the players found it exceptionally difficult to remain in the makeshift saddles, and would often find themselves dangling beneath their mounts as they tried to play a shot. Soccer balls were used at first, until the elephants discovered that stamping on the balls caused them to burst and thereafter tried to trample as many as possible.

Despite these initial difficulties, the game had fired the imagination of players and spectators alike, many of whom have returned every year since the inaugural championships. Subsequent revisions to the rules, the use of ordinary horse polo-balls instead of the ill-fated soccer balls, and the introduction of a leather saddle with rope stirrups and a jumbo-sized girth have ensured that elephant polo continues to flourish. The organizers have even applied to the International Olympic Committee for official recognition of the sport.

The Fifteenth Annual Championships were held in early December 1996 at the Maghauly polo field on the edge of Royal Chitwan National Park. The pitch, surrounded by dense forests and lying in the shadow of the mighty peaks of the central Himalaya, measures 70 metres by 140 metres. Eight teams of four players are invited to the event, and each team can also call on the services of one experienced Nepali player. Games consist of two 10-minute chukkas, and the elephants and mahouts are swapped at half time. A handicapping system operates based on the experience of the competing teams, and substitutions are also allowed. Order is maintained by the referee from his lofty perch on the back of a huge bull elephant.

The competitors wield specially made elongated polo sticks, which are over two metres in length. The sticks are quite heavy, players strap their wrists for support and train regularly with such exercises as draining large pitchers of Bloody Marys. One American horse-polo player takes this tournament so seriously that for weeks beforehand he stands in his swimming pool swinging a golf club one-handed through the water in order to strengthen his wrist.

Novice players never really appreciate the difficulties inherent in elephant polo until their first practice session. Jim Edwards has compared the game to trying to play golf from a slow-moving Land Rover, although one disillusioned rookie thought it was rather more like being strapped onto the roof of a double decker bus with four flat tires. On the other hand, the best players are almost an extension of their elephants, leaning out aggressively as they swing their polo sticks through a full 360 degree circle before connecting with the ball.

There is more to the WEPA Championships than just elephant polo. After each day's play, competitors return for a buffet lunch to the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, a jet-setters' favourite whose guest list has included Hillary Clinton, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, Kate Moss, Christy Turlington, Bernado Burtolucci and Henry Kissinger. They are then free to explore the surrounding jungle by elephant back, jeep, canoe or on foot, searching for the Asian one-horned rhinoceros and the elusive Royal Bengal tiger. In the evening, everyone gathers in the dining lodge and bar to exchange tall tales of animal encounters.

The bar is also a hot-bed of intrigue where players scheme deviously behind the scenes in order to gain an advantage over their opponents. As competitors must depend completely on their mahouts to manoeuvre the elephant close to the ball, the elephant drivers are inundated with T-shirts, caps and beer in attempts to curry favour. Over the years, players have smuggled special treats of sugar cane to the elephants, and secret practice sessions have been held to train the elephants to dribble the polo ball as though it was a soccer ball. A Swiss team flew in 2,500 bags of popcorn in an unsuccssful attempt to gain the support of the spectators, and one team even trained its elephant goalkeeper to lie down in front of the posts and obstruct the goal.

The 1996 competition featured three local sides: the powerful National Parks team of Nepali players, the Tiger Tops Tuskers led by Jim Edwards, and the British Gurkha Gladiators squad of army officers based in Kathmandu. Also returning were the 1993 champions J & B Rare Whisky, and the Screwy Tuskers, an American team made up of three generations of a signle family enjoying a holiday with a difference. Newcomers included the International Mercenaries with players from England, Germany and the United States, and Loons Cavalry, a squad of experienced polo players lead by James Manclark.

By far the most colourful team, however, was the Z Ladies, resplendent in their white polo shirts, bright red jackets and zebra print jodhpurs. The team was captained by Catherine Lawrence, a corporate lawyer from Toronto who had first heard about elephant polo during a 1994 trip to Nepal. Joining her were Robin Perry, a management consultant from Toronto, and Randi Dubois, a lecturer in motivational leadership currently living in San Francisco. Lawrence declined the services of an experienced Nepali player and instead included Margie McDougal, the wife of one of the founding members of WEPA, thus making the Z Ladies the first women's team in the history of the championships, as well as the first entry from Canada.

The Z Ladies had to cope with the sudden transition from snowstorms in Toronto to the tropical heat of the jungle. "We jumped down the rabbit hole and suddenly emerged in Nepal" was how Lawrence later described the experience. To make matters worse, they were drawn in the most difficult qualifying group, and lost their first two matches against the British Gurkha Gladiators and the National Parks. However, all their pre-tournament practice finally paid off in the last game (Lawrence and Perry had spent hours standing on a car roof in Toronto swinging a croquet mallet with a bamboo extension), and the Z Ladies upset J & B Rare Whisky by two goals to one to secure third place in their group.

Meanwhile, the second qualifying group produced some thrilling elephant polo and several moments of high drama. Three teams finished tied in first place, and the two semi-final berths were only clinched by Loons Cavalry and the International Mercenaries after a penalty shoot-out.

Play had barely started on semi-final day before it came to an abrupt halt due to a demonstration by local villagers. A rogue wild elephant had been terrorizing the area for several months, eating crops and destroying several homes. Nothing had been done to solve the problem despite repeated requests to the local administration and the national park authorities, so the villagers grabbed their opportunity for massive domestic and international exposure. In a scene reminiscent of an early Frankenstein movie, a band of villagers together with park rangers armed with tranquilizing guns tracked the elephant that nite, and eventually succeeded in capturing it.

When play finally resumed, the Z Ladies faced a daunting task in the play-off for 5th place. Their opponents were the Tiger Tops Tuskers who had won two of their qualifying matches before being eliminated in the penalty shoot-out. The Canadians put up a gutsy performance and actually led 4-3 half-way through the second chukka before succumbing to four late goals. However, they didn't leave the tournament empty-handed, as their imaginative outfits earned them the award for the best-dressed team.

After the trophies had been presented and the last champagne corks popped, the players climbed aboard small planes bound for Kathmandu, the mahouts mounted their elephants and returned to their jungle camps, and the locals began the long walk back to their villages. Manclark and Edwards were left alone beside the empty pitch, still plotting new adventures: "Rhinoceros polo, anyone?" 

Chris Beall is a Canadian photojournalist lecturer and trek leader based in Kathmandu, Nepal.