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16th King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament Raised THB 4 Million for Thailand’s Pachyderms

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After four days of fun festivities on the bank of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, the 16th King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament wrapped up on March, Sunday 11, after a total of ten teams and more than 40 players from around the world created memorable moments on and off the pitch during the annual charity event, which took take at Anantara Bangkok Riverside.

A total of 20 unemployed ex-street elephants took part in this year’s tournament, during which time they received full veterinary checks from the Zoological Parks Organisation of Thailand under the patronage of His Majesty the King of Thailand and the Department of Livestock Development. In addition, all elephants were given essential vitamins, food, and care which are not available to them during their normal daily lives.

The event had something for everyone, including a colorful opening parade; an opening ceremony overseen by the Kru Ba Yai, Thailand’s “elephant spirit men,” traditional dancers, and Children’s Day, where local school children were invited to get up close with the elephants and learn more about their national animal. There also was a range of educational walks, games, and activities, all teaching the benefits of elephant conservation and wellbeing. Saturday was “Ladies Day,” popularly known as “Bangkok Ascot,” where ladies dressed to impress with the Best Dressed lady winning an amazing holiday in Oman.

But the event was not only about fun and games. A generous sum of over THB 4 million was raised for many elephant charity projects during the event, bringing a total sum raised to date to almost THB 55 million. Funds from the 2018 event will be donated to various projects including the Zoological Parks Organisation of Thailand, which supports veterinary and educational projects to improve the year-round lives of elephants and mahouts in the Surin Province, where ex-street elephants face ongoing hardship.

Other significant benefits from the money raised by the tournament include: the ongoing Thai Elephant Therapy Project which has been underway since 2009 in conjunction with Chiang Mai University’s Department of Occupational Therapy, with future clinics to include children with Down’s syndrome and other conditions now committed until the end of 2018, as well as the funding of Asia’s first workshop to show traditional elephant trainers and camp owners the benefits of Positive Reinforcement Training for captive elephants with additional workshops this year in Myanmar reaching teams responsible for over 200 elephants.

The highly anticipated final was presided over by the King of Thailand’s Royal representative, H.E. Air Chief Marshal Chalit Pukbhasuk, Privy Councillor. Reigning champions Mekhong went head to head with PWC New Zealand All Blacks culminating in a thrilling penalty shootout with Mekhong clinching the title in the last moments of the match, resulting in a final score of 7-6.

Final Leaderboard for 2018 King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament

  1. Mekhong
  2. PWC New Zealand All Blacks
  3. King Power
  4. JW Blue Label
  5. Casillero Del Diablo (CDD)
  6. Angus
  7. INVNT
  8. IBM
  9. Pelago Luxury
  10. Italia

Interesting Facts about Elephants and Elephant Polo

  • Elephants in this tournament only respond to Thai commands from their mahouts.
  • The first elephant polo games were played with a soccer ball. These were quickly changed to standard polo balls after it was realized that the elephants liked to stamp and pop the soccer balls!
  • Each elephant polo match takes a total of 14 minutes and is divided into two 7-minute “chukkas” or halves.
  • The longest polo stick used in the game is 2,38 mts.
  • Each fully grown elephant eats 250 kilograms of bananas every day.
  • The elephants on the field are former street elephants. They are given full veterinary checks and care, much-needed food and drink, and essential vitamin supplements for the duration of the event.
  • The tournament has raised over USD 1,300,000 for various elephant charities providing medical care, sustenance, employment, and mahout training to Thailand’s elephant population.
  • The world’s first elephant assisted therapy clinic for autistic children has been sponsored by the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournaments since 2009.
  • The most unusual auction piece sold at the tournament’s gala dinner was in 2005 when CEO of Minor International and owner of Anantara, Bill Heinecke, was paid USD 3,000 to shave off his beard. His wife won the bidding and Mr. Heinecke was clean shaven and almost unrecognizable for the first time since the 1970s.
  • During the first game of the 2004 championship, the umpire elephant–a bull named Plai Kampeang–took a liking to the star striker, Pang Dodo, and decided to indulge in a bit of mid-match romance. Dodo, being a girl of good breeding, took off at a pace closely followed by her amorous umpire. A change of rules saw umpiring of the game now done on foot.

Elephants and Mahouts Traditions In Thailand

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was an estimated population of 100,000 elephants in the former Siam. According to latest estimates, the elephant population in Thailand has dwindled to just over 5,000. Some 3,600 are domesticated elephants, while a mere 1,500 roam freely in the wild.

Alarmingly, overall numbers are further decreasing, making projects like Anantara’s Elephant Camp vital to the success of national conservation efforts. With legislation in place to ban elephants from “working” in cities, the camp offers mahouts a viable alternative to return with these proud animals to the green jungles where they belong.

Having loyally served kings and commoners throughout Thailand’s history–in warfare, as a means of transportation, and for agricultural activities–these noble species are regarded as a symbol of prosperity and power. Elephants are also prominently featured in Buddhist art, architecture, and sculpture. Thai people, in fact, have a long shared history with the elephant, and their skillful tradition of elephant training is highly regarded worldwide.

The mahout (or in Thai “Kwarn Chang”) is the person who drives an elephant. There are three kinds of mahouts, distinguished by the way they control the animal:

  • A “Reghawan’” uses love
  • A “Yukthiman” uses ingenuity to outsmart them
  • A “Balwan’” controls an elephant with discipline. This practice, however, is less accepted and much more uncommon today.

Essential to becoming a successful mahout are qualities like stamina, patience, perseverance, responsibility and common sense in order to handle an unforeseen crisis.

Interestingly, many myths and superstitions exist among mahouts about elephants and their profession. Since the elephant is the country’s national symbol and a representative of Lord Ganesha, the Hindu god with the elephant head, it is considered disrespectful to mount or ride an elephant with footwear on. Mahouts will always pray before mounting an elephant and–as elephants are very smart and can sense emotions like fear or apprehension—mahouts have to be confident and have a peaceful mind.

Along with that goes the responsibility to take good care of the animal, to be aware of its safety at all times, to ensure that it’s well fed, has enough water, is well taken care of and always clean. Verbal commands have to be loud and firm, but kind softer words are used to sooth the animal. So dedicated are many mahouts to their elephants that they are known for putting the elephant’s needs before their own.

A fascinating aspect of the culture around domesticating elephants is the traditional role of the “Khru Ba Yai,” of which there is only a few left in all of Thailand. Historically, the Khru Ba Yai was the person who possessed spiritual control over all elephants – the highest rank an elephant capturer could attain. A lesser rank was that of a “Mor,” and to become one you were required to capture at least ten elephants.

Prior to every elephant capturing, the Khru Ba Yai would bless the Mor and set the rules. In the jungle, he would speak to the spirits, believed to bring good luck to the capturer and confuse the spirits so they cannot warn the elephant to run away. This practice stopped 40 years ago, and the only remaining Khru Ba Yai are now in retirement. In Thailand, elephants are no longer captured in the wild. The “Kui” people of Surin province in the northeast of Thailand were renowned for their capturing skills and treated these animals like their own children. They raised them with love and care, buried them with proper Buddhist ceremonies, and prayed for newborn baby elephants to be loved, smart and strong.

The common sight of elephants today in many large Thai cities appear to be a novelty at first (for tourists), but the sad reality is that they are used for begging, are often not well fed and live in unsuitable conditions. And that’s what essentially gave birth to Anantara’s Elephant Camp – the realization that an alternative could be offered to the mahouts, their families and elephants. A place where the animals are rehabilitated in their native habitat–assured of medical care and sustenance–while the mahout and his family are also well taken care of.

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Check LookeastTV’s video review of the event at the top of this post!