There are different ways to involve oneself in the plight for and interacting with Thailand’s diminishing elephant population – this fascinating animal that is such a strong symbol for Thailand. Some go trekking on the back of an elephant, some give donations – and some gets involved in the noble sport elephant polo to support them!
Two long-term Swedish members of the Thai-Swedish Chamber of Commerce as well as residents of Thailand are heavily involved in this admirable and unique activity; Mr Björn Richardsson and Mr Christopher Stafford. These aficionados have also played an instrumental role in bringing this sport to Thailand from Nepal.
And some 14 years after the start of the “adventure” the elephant population can reap the rewards of their efforts: much fewer having to work on the streets of Bangkok, something that satisfies the two gentlemen immensely.
“There are much fewer elephants in Bangkok nowadays, which is really good and the whole idea with doing this,” says founder Christopher Stafford.
“In Bangkok there are only a few left,” states the Swede, “which is really good and the whole idea with doing this.”
The annual event allows 50 young elephants to be taken off the streets for the two-week period during the tournament, providing them with the best food possible, as well as the only proper veterinary check and vitamins they receive all year.
And only street elephants, or other domesticated elephants are used for the tournament, the majority of them brought in from Surin.
Christopher Stafford introduced the sport and tournament to Thailand in 2001 through Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas; the brand for which he was then working in Hua Hin. At the beginning the main owner had his doubts but today it has grown into one of Thailand’s most prominent events for tourism promotion and a very essential, core project for Anantara’s CSR efforts on the annual calendar. As the elephant is something of a national icon the event fits perfectly with tourism promotion.
Christopher had asked a friend if it was possible to play polo in Thailand and his good friend, restaurateur David Jacobsen from Bangkok, had then suggested to try out elephant polo instead. The Swede became instantly fascinated and set out to realise it in Thailand, feeling it just had to be done.
Thus, Kings Cup Elephant Polo was born and it has been quite a journey since then.
“In the first year, we had six teams and were not sure what we were doing, but we tried and it work. It was a bit ad hoc but it was great fun, we realized. Then in the second year we increased to ten teams, and in 2005 we peaked and had sixteen teams. And that maximum we’ve maintained since then,” says Christopher.
The importance of the event for the Swedes was always to help the elephants – which has not changed much.
“When Björn opened Anantara in the Golden Triangle we built in an elephant programme. And I managed get John Roberts over here to establish the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) which has been there for almost ten years and has grown immensely. So John is a central figure in this, who was part of elephant polo also before this and worked in Nepal with conservation.”
Set up to improve the plight of Thailand’s elephants GTAEF has been diversified to include welfare projects that incorporate broader philanthropic and cultural objectives.
Overseeing GTAEF, John is also Anantara’s Director of Elephants and Conservation Efforts at Anantara Golden Triangle’s on-site Elephant Camp.
Under Roberts’ passionate helm, over 40 elephants have been rescued from Thailand’s city streets, accompanied by their entire mahout family.
“Those were previously street elephants and now live the good life and their families are compensated for the income they would have otherwise gained from the elephants being on the streets. Now the elephants don’t have to suffer, and can stay healthy and enjoy support from a veterinarian.”
GTAEF is very much helped by the annual elephant polo tournament with its charity gala dinner.
And as the 2014 edition of the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament was held in Bangkok, at VR Sports Club, for the first time (after previous stints in Chiang Rai and most recently held in Hua Hin) the charity auction raised a generous sum of THB4.5 million for various elephant charity projects bringing the total sum raised to US$900,000 (BHT 28.7 million.)
The event is thus of big importance.
“It’s among the 3-4 foremost ways for the elephants to get money. You have this problem that there are 2600 jobless elephants. And they live on tourism; hiking etc., but they do not have that every day, sometimes they have no income for 3 – 4 months. And for their care elephant polo is probably one of the most positive supports ever for them. The mahouts fight hard to get to join each year.”
As for participants, they come from all over the world, and every year includes the core of players from the birthplace of the sport – Nepal.
“In my view those men that have been doing this for 30 years are the real deal.”
“Without them elephant polo would not be what it has become today, because they have given it certain character. That is quite important, there’s a very nice social life between all of us who have been part of this from the beginning; it has grown into a society. I think we would not have managed to keep this going without that. It is not anything snobbish. It has grown into a very strong friendship between the players. So it’s been a joy.
Björn can only agree: “It’s the people, it’s an incredible mix of great persons!”
The World Elephant Polo Association is based there, where Bjorn, Christopher and some others, are representatives. Their work is ensuring that the tournaments are conducted in the safest way possible for elephants, players and mahouts.
Every year they go there to play and to attend an annual meeting.
Anyone interested in joining the game can come forward.
“Contact us; we take in new players. Some then stay for a number of years while others who don’t like it that much opt out.”
It seems to be all about the friendship between people and the love of elephants, which seems like a winning formula.
Full story is published in Thai Sweden Review November 2014