Thai transvestites mounted the rehabilitated street elephants, raised the long wooden mallet, and prepared to do battle against some of the world's toughest rugby players.
Welcome to the 11th annual King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament that recently played out in balmy Hua Hin, Thailand, about 200km outside Bangkok.
"This is the most eclectic mix of quirky people you'll find anywhere in the world."
- German Prince Carl Oettinger-Wallerstein
The event was more spectacle than sport with a wide range of colourful characters from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Champagne breakfasts and black-tie parties lubricated the social scene. But by the end of the five-day tourney, the competition inevitably heated up, and pride overrided the party.
"This is the most eclectic mix of quirky people you'll find anywhere in the world," said German Prince Carl Oettinger-Wallerstein, 42, from Bavaria.
Beside the fun and games, there was a serious side to the event: helping elephants - Thailand's revered national symbol. Most of the animals were taken from the jungle to serve as tourist attractions in busy cities such as Bangkok. About 3.3 million baht (US$107,000) was raised this past week for various elephant rehabilitation initiatives.
Elephant polo was first founded in 1982 in Nepal when James Manclark, a scion of horse polo, started the pachyderm version with fellow enthusiast Jim Edwards, now deceased. They rode elephants that gave tourist rides to get the sport up and running, but many adjustments were obviously necessary.
"We tried to play on a horse polo field, but decided it was too far for the elephants to run," Manclark remembered. "We also tried to play with small footballs, but found the elephants would step on them and burst them."
Manclark is typical of the eccentric personalities the tournament attracts each year. An industrialist who lives in Scotland, he unsuccessfully attempted to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon in 1999.
All Blacks meet lady boys
This year's tournament also pitted former New Zealand All Black's Robin Brooke, Olo Brown and Charlie Riechelmann against opponents such as Panvilas Mongkol "Miss Tiffany Thailand" - a transgender beauty queen - and her team of katoey cabaret dancers.
"Here we are watching Thai lady boys playing elephant polo with former members of the All Blacks rugby team," marvelled Prince Oettinger-Wallerstein.
"Handicapping" was afforded the weaker teams to keep the matches even. The transgender squad from the seaside Thai town of Pattaya had never played polo. Points were already on the scoreboard for them before the matches began.
"This year we've had no runaway games and the play has been relatively exciting," said John Roberts, an event organizer. "We've also had allegations of cheating in the past. Each team thinks the other team has paid off the mahouts. But so far, everyone seems to be behaving."
"You really have no control. Often it's just pure luck where the mahout and the elephant end up."
- Robert Mullis, English player
Elephant polo is a challenge even for seasoned horse-bound players. Connecting with the ball while barking directions in Thai to the mahout can be frustrating.
"You really have no control," said Robert Mullis, an English financier who lives in Thailand. "Often it's just pure luck where the mahout and the elephant end up."
Some animal rights groups have raised concerns over the sport, including the steel hooks the mahouts use to steer the elephants. But event officials and veterinarians say the animals suffer no pain.
Roberts said most of the elephants were rescued from the streets of major Thai cities. None have ever been harmed while playing polo, he says.
"We have 40 animals for this event so they only have to play a few times each day. We have always worked hard to not stress the elephants, and to make sure they are well cared for by the players and the mahouts," he says.
Since the event kicked off in Thailand in 2001, pachyderm polo has raised more than US$500,000 for various local and international charities dedicated to protecting Asian elephants, both in captivity and the few remaining wild herds across Thailand.
Funds also go for programs including elephants working with children with autism, therapy for those rescued from street life, and even an elephant ambulance.
"Much of the money raised has gone to a hospital in Krabi that treats elephants, as well as efforts to stop deforestation across the country," said William Heinecke, whose Anantara Hotel in Hua Hin is the primary sponsor of the event.
Source: Al Jazeera