1. The 'Sport' of Elephant Polo
Elephant polo is just as it sounds. Instead of horseback, polo is played on elephant back for added prestige. The teams for the Bangkok Elephant Polo 4-day event were almost all, foreigners sponsored by corporations who were visiting Thailand and using the Thai elephants and mahouts to play polo.
The issue of horse polo, or the argument "it is the same as using horses" is obviously facetious; any toddler can tell you they are different animals evolved for different purposes. Ask a equine veterinarian if elephants and horses can and should be treated identically. Elephants are neither bred nor evolved for running or sport the way horses are, and have no advantage in being predisposed to"thoroughly enjoy"ing it (in fact no-one is in a position to decide what animals enjoy). Elephants are no more suited to horse polo than bulldogs are for greyhound racing (and using this argument is not a tacit endorsement of horse polo).
Although the majority of this essay is focused on fact, this point is my opinion: the amount of skill required for elephant polo is negligible compared to horse polo; the players have no control over the elephant at all. If you would like to dispute this, I suggest using the polo fields at the event for 2 simultaneous games next year: one with the Thai mahouts playing polo with no 'players' and one with the visiting 'players' playing polo with no mahouts. I predict the mahouts would do fine swinging a mallet around, while I doubt any of the players would even be able to mount an elephant, let alone organise a game of 6 elephants (assuming they survived at all).
A feeling I had throughout the event (and again just a personal opinion) was one of a slightly distasteful Western colonialism: foreigners showing a general lack of respect for the Thai culture, people and elephants. One particular moment summed this up for me: a Western polo player patting a Thai mahout on the head as reward for scoring a goal (see the photo below). This is already a condescending gesture in Western culture, but the act of touching a Thai person's head shows a flagrant lack of respect for Thai culture. That is wrong.
Now over with the background and opinions, and onto the evidence.
2. Nail and Hook Abuse
I took hundreds of photos of nail abuse, which you can see all throughout this essay. However, I feel it best comes from the organisers themselves. The first screenshot below (click for bigger) was taken from the official event website 2014 photo gallery. I have enlarged the relevant section showing the nail abuse.
The next screenshot, as their online gallery quotes, is celebrity Cindy Bishop posing with an elephant. I took a photo at this same moment, and you can see the nail used to keep the elephant posing for the camera (click for bigger). Cindy Bishop is an animal advocate and obviously cares deeply for animals, even using her fame to help great causes like Fin Free Thailand. Like all of us, I imagine she read and trusted the PR materials just as all the guests did, but didn't know what was going on behind her back. It is sad that the trust and goodwill of guests and sponsors is betrayed by what is going on without their knowledge.
Note that I am reproducing parts of these 2 photos, (which are made available publicly and for download to the public with no stated restrictions) for educational purposes within the guidlines of "fair use", with full credit to www.anantaraelephantpolo.com and the link to the source page. You can find out more about fair use at this link.
The day before I arrived, I was told that one of the organisers presented a nail that was allegedly confiscated from a mahout. In the PR material, the rules indicate "ABUSE OF THE ELEPHANT IS CONSIDERED TO BE THE MOST SERIOUS OFFENCE.". I was just a guest and not one of the referees whose job it is to police this abuse, yet I easily documented nail abuse in every single polo game for 3 days, during the time between matches, during the closing elephant buffet ceremony, and after the event when rides and begging was taking place.
The abuse is self-evident, the photos speak for themselves. At no point did I see an official issue a warning, ‘send off’ an elephant, confiscate a nail, or provide any indication at all that nail abuse had even been seen, let alone acted upon as they claim it should be.
Logically, this can only indicate 1 of 2 options:
1. The PR material is inaccurate: there are no efforts to stop abuse during the polo event.
2. The PR material is correct: at the "one of the biggest charitable events in Thailand", an entire team of officials and referees dedicated to policing nail and hook abuse are unequivocally failing.
Option 1 looks bad for the sport of elephant polo, but option 2 looks worse: it demonstrates that it is fundamentally infeasible to stop elephant abuse during an elephant polo event. I would be interested to know which option the organisers would decide upon, should they respond at all.
3. General Elephant & Mahout Welfare
Let's look at some other claims from the PR material.
Two Week's Respite for Young Street Elephants
"50 young elephants to be taken off the streets for the two week period"
Every part of this statement was disputed by the mahouts we spoke to. The mahouts tell a different story, and all I am doing is relaying the information they gave us.
While it is claimed that "elephants must be young, preferably under 20", there were many older looking elephants at the event. The elephant in the picture to the right was claimed by the mahout to be 35 years old.
"taken off the streets"
Rather than being "taken off the streets", every mahout we spoke to claimed that the elephants were all from Surin province, and were non-working elephants (owned and kept privately by families there). If what they say is true, these elephants were brought from private resting grounds into a situation of work: the opposite of what was mentioned here.
Food and Vitamins
At the claimed "50 young elephants" having 14 days at the event, that is a total of 14,000 banana stems (a stem = a branch with many bunches of bananas on), 35,000 sticks of sugar cane and 7000 pineapple plants.
We observed the elephants eating almost exclusively pineapple plant leaves. Indeed the organisers confirmed that the sugar cane we saw on the 3rd day of the event had arrived the previous night. That's 3 days without sugar cane if you believe the mahouts, or 11 days without it if you believe the PR material. At the event area and the mahout camp we visited every evening we didn't see any bananas at any point, let alone 20 stems per day per elephant. 14,000 banana stems should have been easy to spot.
The mahouts again confirmed that the elephants hadn't received any bananas, only pineapple leaves and the single batch of sugar cane, certainly not the 35,000 sticks claimed by the organisers. We didn't see any vitamin supplements either, but they could have been provided before I arrived. Following the elephants after each game, I can at least confirm they were not provided "at the end of each match" as claimed.
Native Forest Environment and River
This event takes place in a city (Bangkok). There is simply no "native forest" or "natural environment" nearby.
Specifically, this event takes place at a sports club surrounded by private farmland, a few metres off the main highway to the airport. It is a golf course and curated grounds, none of which were available to the elephants. They were split between being chained on a field or on the concrete road along it. A river flows past the outside of the perimeter, where the elephants could not and did not access throughout the event.
Again this is easily shown to be factually incorrect, take a look at any of the photos, or better yet the satellite map of the area. Click the annotated map below to see the area on Google maps, and do let me know if you can find any primary forest nearby.
Aside from the nail and hook abuse, nutrition, removal from a safe environment and lack of claimed natural environment above, there were other concerns.
There was a lack of water (only 2 points for the elephants, neither of which were at the holding area where the elephants spent most of the day, with no shade. At the water buckets at the mahout camp, humans bathed in the same water buckets as the elephants.
Many of the elephants were in generally poor condition, particularly concerning their feet. On the penultimate day a shocking fight broke out between two elephants in the spot where school groups were posing for photographs 24 hours earlier (video here). The crowd fled and one off the mahouts was flung to the ground. No vets were present at the scene or inspected either elephant for the rest of the day, no first aid was present for the mahout and he also was not checked out.
In the course of play, players repeatedly hit their own and other elephants with the mallets, much longer than normal polo mallets.
An elephant also slipped in rain (below) due to the consistently poor weather. Elephant polo presents danger where none exists were they left alone. This incident does have a positive side as the game was cancelled immediately after the elephant slip (see section 4. The Positives for more of the positive actions taken by the organisers).
The mahout camp we visited every day was shocking. Mahouts were given tents and marquees to live for the 5 days (or 14, according to the PR material) of constant rain. Many of the mahouts gave up due to the constant noise and flooding of their assigned area, and were sleeping in the backs of their trucks where at least it was dry.
It should be noted that the mahouts are under severe financial pressure to perform well for the players. The best view of the abuse is from directly behind the mahout (as they hide the nail behind the top of the elephant's head) and if I were a player I would have noticed. The players are the ones telling the mahouts what to do, and the mahouts only have one way of doing it instantly in such a high pressure situation. The mahouts at the camp were not using nails, the elephants were walked around without the pressure of competitive sport. The only place I witnessed abuse was on and around the polo fields at the behest of the players and tourists.
4. Positives of the Event
After the daily rain, many games were cancelled because of serious danger of elephant injuries, despite pressure from players and sponsors. At other times, stationary 'penalty shoot-outs' were played instead of games. On this point (and this point alone) the umpire should be commended; this was the only demonstration I saw all weekend of holding the elephants' welfare above that of the sponsors and players.
Unfortunately for the organisers, this just serves as an even stronger reason why this event is unsustainable, with very little action for players and spectators, and less prestige and reach for the sponsors.
Another positive is that the mahouts were told to tie tape around their sharp hooks to prevent injury to the elephants. As you can see, this didn't work. Instead, they simply used easily-hidden metal nails and un-taped the hooks outside of the 28 minutes of game time.
The intention of the event is good, and the money is reported to go to great causes such as elephant conservation and children's charities. However, whether the means justify the ends is contentious: I certainly don't think abusing 50 elephants to help other elephants and children is worth the suffering, when so many alternatives are available.
The event organisation and hospitality were superb. Even we, a visiting group of elephant welfare people, were given with the best hospitality that could be provided. It is such a huge shame that an amazing event with such professional and experienced organisers had to be centred around elephant polo. A positive event with no elephant cruelty issues would surely have been a great success.
The elephants, although providing rides and begging, did have time to interact with guests without pressure (although asking for tips) and in fact these times were easily the most popular time for guests, who just wanted to meet, feed and take photos with the elephants. One wonders if the event was simply an elephant meet and greet, it would be far more popular, raising more money with a greater (and more positive) exposure for the sponsors.
5. The End of Elephant Polo
There is a clear catch-22 at play here for the organisers on how the PR material presents the event:
If the safety and welfare claims are to be met in the future, then barely any games will take place due to rain, and most if not all elephants would be expelled due to nail/hook abuse, meaning there is little or no excitement and publicity for sponsors.
On the other hand, if the welfare issues are continued to be ignored, sponsors will have such bad publicity as public awareness increases to the point that spectators don’t want to go.
It’s a lose-lose situation.
It's the same old question: why? Why force (in the most literal sense of the word) the elephants to play polo when the most popular parts of the event were feeding, photos and interaction? Why would a company sponsor an event with such obvious potential for bad publicity? Why would an equine polo player derive satisfaction from sport that requires comparatively little skill?
It comes down to this: even if all the PR material was true, even if the elephants and mahouts were given what they were promised, and taken from the situations claimed, even if due respect was paid to the Thai culture, people and elephants, there would still have been an elephant polo event.
It is an outmoded and unnecessary event, and with increasing awareness of animal rights in the general public it is ultimately unsustainable. Just as circuses are becoming outlawed around the world, so will elephant polo be nothing but a source of shame and PR liability for sponsors and organisers.
Elephant polo cannot be justified in terms of welfare, sport, entertainment or sponsorship.