Elephant polo festival in Nepal

by AFP/Sam Taylor, Jan 5, 2009 | Destinations: Nepal

MEGHAULI, December 4, 2008 - "The social side is important, but on the pitch it's serious," Torquhil Campbell, the 13th Duke of Argyll, said as an elephant rushed past with a mallet-swinging hedge fund manager on its back.

The world may be lurching into recession, but in the jungles of southern Nepal, it's business as usual for the eclectic bunch of jetsetters gathered for their annual festival of Pimm's and elephant polo.

An idea thought up in a bar nearly 30 years ago in the Swiss resort of St Moritz by Nepalese tourism pioneer A.V. Jim Edwards and polo enthusiast James Manclark, has blossomed into a series of tournaments held in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Nepal.

The blue riband event is the World Cup held every year at a grass airstrip on the edge of Nepal's Chitwan national park, 90 kilometres (56 miles) southwest of Kathmandu.

Based on the rules of polo, but played on elephants on a smaller field, the 20-minute matches involve teams of four players on various sized pachyderms tussling for control of the small white ball.

The game can be fast-paced, with the surprisingly sprightly elephants kicking up clouds of dust as they rush up and down the pitch, which is edged on one side by jungles where tigers and rhino roam.

"The polo stick is up to 96 inches (2.4 metres) long so it requires a lot of skill and strength to use," said the 40-year-old duke and businessman who was competing in a team sponsored by Scottish whisky makers Chivas.

Mahouts, or elephant riders, direct the beasts with hard blows to the head and shoulders with short sticks, leaving the player to focus on whacking the wooden ball to either end of the 100-metre pitch.

Krisjan Edwards, the 38-year-old son of the sport's founder, rejected any suggestion that the sport was cruel.

"The equivalent for a human being is having a hamster on your shoulder repeatedly hitting you with a toothpick," said Edwards, who manages the Tiger Mountain chain of luxury jungle and mountain resorts established in the 1960s by his father.

"It doesn't hurt them, it's just very annoying," said Edwards, as he watched the play at the event, which began November 30 and ends on Saturday.

This year the competition -- which raises money for conservation work and charities in Nepal -- has eight teams with players ranging from the expert to the total novices.

The US team, New York Blue, trained in their home town in empty car parks, clinging to the top of SUVs while swinging mallets fashioned from broom handles and plumbing parts.

"It's hugely different than our practices," said team member Bill Keith.

"For one thing, the sticks are much heavier than the home made ones we practiced with," he said.

The seven-member US squad of thirty-something lawyers, bankers, PR executives and journalists have learned the sport has risks for which their improvised training left them unprepared.

"Our defender Chip took a whack in the side of the head with a mallet and got a golf-ball sized lump," said Keith.

Hundreds of local villagers gathered to watch the play on Wednesday, setting up peanut and fried noodle stalls opposite the bar where the players were enjoying drinks in the highly-encouraged social aspect of the competition.

"It's a lot of fun to see, and it brings tourists and money to the area so locals get to benefit," said Jit Bahadur Mahato, a 45-year-old farmer.

Impoverished and aid-dependent, Nepal's economy is largely unconnected to the financial turmoil that has hit worldwide, but the ripples of the downturn are beginning to be felt at the elephant polo, where corporate sponsors pay tens of thousands of dollars to take part.

"I heard a sponsor did pull out," said Jason Wheeller, whose 10-member Pukka Chukkas team is raising money for multiple sclerosis charities in Britain and Australia.

"They could not be seen sponsoring elephant polo while they were struggling to stay afloat," said Wheeller, 43, who works in oil and gas risk assessment in London.

New York Blue team member Jeff Bollerman had an optimistic take on the economic downturn.

"There is about to be an oversupply of very frivolous people with lots of time on their hands, so from that perspective, I think the sport has a great future," said the 34-year-old banker.

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The New York Blue - America's elephant polo team.

by AFP/Sebastian Smith

New York, Nov 29, 2008 - They are the world's unlikeliest contenders heading to Nepal for the world's unlikeliest sport. Meet the New York Blue, America's elephant polo team.

Elephants are hard to come by in New York. Large motor vehicles are not.

So before flying this week to the World Elephant Polo tournament, the New York Blue's seven adventurers practiced swinging at small white balls from the roofs of two SUVs in an empty beachside car park.

Conditions were designed to simulate the Nepalese jungle field hosting teams from Asia and Europe from November 30 through December 6, 2008.

Well, aside from the non-elephants, freezing wind and out-of-season bleakness of New York's Atlantic shore.

"Beautiful," encouraged the Blues' sole female member, Melanie Brandman, as teammate Bryan Abrams lunged at the ball from the top of a white Mercury.

Brandman clutched at Abrams' legs through a window to stop him tumbling. But that wasn't the only difficulty.

"Oops," team captain Bill Keith said. "I think I just ran over the ball."

Elephant polo, played in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand by a wealthy few to the rules of horse polo but on a smaller field, is uniquely challenging.

So is clinging to the roof of an SUV in a gale with practice mallets fashioned from paint roller handles and plumbing parts.

But this bunch of 30-something Manhattan media, finance and PR employees appears undaunted.

Despite the icy weather, they practiced in a snappy team uniform of white Levis, custom-made polo shirts and red baseball caps. Being New Yorkers, they shod themselves with matching Converse sneakers rather than the more colonial-looking leather boots favoured by polo players.

They fly first to Kathmandu, then head to southern Nepal's remote Chitwan National Park, where a grass airstrip doubles as a polo pitch and tigers roam the surrounding jungle.

Once there, the New York Blue will finally mount real elephants -- four to a team, with small ones in attack, the big beasts in defense.

Communicating will be tricky since both elephants and the local mahouts, who actually steer the animals, understand only Nepalese. But there are advantages that an SUV can never deliver.

"Elephants are amazing. If you drop your mallet, they'll pick it right up using their trunk," Keith, 32, said.

The tournament, started 27 years ago by two Britons, draws a colourful following of playboys, aristocrats and elephant connoisseurs. Teams come from as far away as Scotland, Hong Kong and Thailand.

The New Yorkers bursting into this charmed circle bear distinctly non-elephantine sporting credentials.

Team member Josh Dean, a journalist, claims to have ridden an ostrich. Corporate lawyer Rob Forster is a golfer. Abrams rode an elephant as a tourist in Thailand.

Hedge fund trader Chip Frazier, a teammate points out, "has nice teeth and is tall."

But self-confidence may compensate for the lack of experience.

Before practicing, the seven joked about becoming world athletes. Maybe there'd even be a homecoming ticker tape parade, they fantasized.

"Even if it's just out here," Keith quipped, gesturing at the deserted concrete and tarmac of the beachside park.

Certainly none of them is having second thoughts.

"We all have a distinct appreciation for the absurd," Forster said.

Brandman, a PR executive who says she's been training with push-ups, wonders if the escapade wasn't predestined: "Five years ago a psychic told me 'elephants will play an important part in your life'."

Keith, an editor at gay magazine Out, says he'd dreamed of elephant polo for three years after witnessing the tournament during a trip to Nepal.

"It's sort of better than a guy's weekend in Vegas and besides we've all done the Vegas weekend and probably spent the same amount of money," he joked.

"If you have to ask why, then you just don't get it."

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