These four-ton athletes are highly trained, well-kept polo machines. No more than two games are played per day, and no player is allowed to play those two games in a row. Games end at noon, and snacks and beverages are served at half-time—fresh cut grass and about 22 gallons of water. Daily baths in the river keep the competitors refreshed and clean.
Since 1982, Tiger Tops has been hosting the World Elephant Polo Championships in Nepal, as well as serving as headquarters for the exotic variation on the popular sport. Fairly self-explanatory, the game consists of the basic polo guidelines with a few necessary changes to accommodate the size of the player’s mounts—a six-to-10-foot cane with a standard mallet head on the end, a pitch shortened to 3/4 the length to make up for the elephant’s lack of speed, and each elephant carries two riders who must rely on a mahout to do the steering as they shout out directions.
Along with the altered guidelines come elephant-specific rules that must be put into play. An elephant who lies down in front of the goal mouth will receive a foul, and if they use their trunk to pick up the ball, that not only constitutes a foul, but earns their opponent a free hit. Rice balls enhanced with molasses and rock salt act as treats at the end of each match while riders are rewarded with a beer, and all games end by noon to avoid the afternoon heat.
While there’s debate on whether these amazing animals should be used for sport at all, the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) keeps strict guidelines regarding the safety and well being of the elephants. PETA has targeted the sport, costing the organizations sponsorship withdrawals and the occasional match cancellation, and safety was put into question when two players were injured and the minibus of one of the visiting teams was destroyed when an elephant went on a rampage in 2007. Despite the controversy and criticism, Tiger Tops and WEPA maintain that their animals are happy, healthy, and enjoy the opportunity for social interaction and the break from their normal routine of giving safari rides to tourists.
The tournament takes place every December on the edge of Chitwan National Park, and include 16 domesticated Asian elephants, half of them belonging to Tiger Tops and the others brought in by Nepal National Parks. The elephants are accompanied by their mahouts, who usually have been partnered with the animals for several years.