Elephant Polo Draws Anger of Animal Welfare Groups

JAIPUR, India, November 20, 2006 (ENS) - Eighteen protesters from organizations across India were arrested Friday at Jaipur's polo ground as they demonstrated against a game of elephant polo, a sport they say is cruel to the elephants.

The protesters say sharp steel hooks used to prod the elephants into obeying their riders cause open wounds, which become painfully infected and are slow to heal.

They claim the resulting head injuries are covered with ornamental cloths and jewellery to hide them from spectators.

Use of the hooks was not allowed during the actual polo match on Saturday after a campaign against them by animal welfare groups, Elephant Family of the UK and Help in Suffering of Jaipur.

But protesters say they observed trainers using the steel hooks on elephants before and after the match.

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Elephant with marks from a steel hook showing on its truck and belly (Photo courtesy PETA-India)
Polo elephants are captured from the wild and kept chained up, and the protesters say that is no way to treat members of an endangered species.

The polo match was sponsored by jewelry giant Cartier, which said in a statement November 15 that the event was held for the benefit of working elephants in the Indian state of Rajasthan and its capital, Jaipur.

The company "has chosen to leverage its name and reputation in order to improve living and working conditions for elephants in India," according to Cartier's statement.

Elephant polo has a 35 year history in Jaipur. The event was endorsed by the Animal Welfare Board of India, a government agency, and was monitored by members of Elephant Family and Help in Suffering.

Cartier says it is "proud to support" the activities of these organizations.

But the protesters want the company to withdraw its sponsorship, demonstrating with a banner reading, "Cartier: Time to Stop Elephant Cruelty."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals India also has demanded that Cartier withdraw its elephant polo sponsorship. "Tell Cartier that it should find ways to promote its fine jewelry without causing harm to animals," the NGO said in a statement.

Mark Shand, the brother of Camilla Parker Bowles and brother-in-law to Britain's Prince Charles, helped to organize the Jaipur polo match. Author of "Travels on my Elephant," the story of his 600 mile elephant ride across India, Shand says the protesters are off the mark.

"We have taken every possible step to see that elephants are treated well during the match. We have ensured that no metal bullhooks are used," he told the Indo Asian News Service.

The issue is now before the Rajasthan High Court. People for Animals, PFA, a Haryana-based nongovernmental organization, filed a public interest lawsuit Friday seeking a ban on the use of elephants for entertainment.

The Jaipur match was the start of elephant polo season which continues Saturday with the 25th anniversary of World Elephant Polo - a week-long series of matches at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in the Royal Chitwan National Park in southwest Nepal.

Sponsored by liquor manufacturer Chivas Regal, eight teams from around the world will participate, including Nepal, United Kingdom, India, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

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Elephant polo at Tiger Tops (Photo courtesy World Polo Assn.)
The World Elephant Polo Association, WEPA, was formed in 1982 at Tiger Tops. The first games were played on a grass airfield in Meghauly which is located on the border of the national park.

The co-founders, James Manclark, a Scottish landowner and former Olympic tobogganer and Jim Edwards, owner of Tiger Tops and chairman of the Tiger Mountain Group, came up with the idea in a bar in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

The invitational WEPA tournament has been hosted by Tiger Tops at Meghauly each December since 1982.

Elephant polo was first played in India around the turn of the 20th century. It is played with a standard polo ball and bamboo sticks with a standard polo mallet on the end. The length of the stick depends on the size of the elephant - anywhere from five to 12 feet.

Most of the rules of the games are based on horse polo, but the pitch is three-quarters the length because of the slower speed of the elephants.

The elephants are driven by their trainers, called mahouts. The player's responsibility is to let the mahout know where to go, how fast, and when to stop.

A pre-event gala was held in London on October 21 where funds were collected to support charities in Nepal. The after-event ball, also sponsored by Chivas Regal, will be held at the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu.