All Things Considered
National Public Radio
January 2, 1996
Since 1981, Nepal has hosted a polo tournament using elephants rather than horses. Polo aficionados from all over the world come to compete in this highly unusual tourney, won this year by Los Carabaos Locos.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host: Polo is generally a fast game. The field is a whirl of galloping ponies. But some people play the sport on the backs of one of nature's slower creatures, the elephant. From Nepal, Deborah Wang reports.
DEBORAH WANG, Reporter: It is perhaps one of the more bizarre, incongruous, and thoroughly enjoyable sights you might ever see. Imagine this - a hulking gray Indian elephant trotting in the direction of a goal post. On its neck, a barefoot stick-wielding Nepali driver hooting and shouting and urging his elephant on, and on its back, loosely strapped on to a rough burlap sack, a handsome British army officer decked out in starched white jodhpurs and pith helmet trying to hit a polo ball with a long and wobbly stick, amidst a tangle of flapping ears and swinging trunks, and big stomping elephant feet.
ANNOUNCER: Nigel Massip rides forward. Can he connect and get it forward? Yes, it's a great stroke. Good defense.
DEBORAH WANG: This is polo, Nepali style and these are the world' s only international elephant polo championships. Every year on this grassy pitch in the Nepalese jungle, a field of international competitors vies to decide who are the best elephant polo players in the world.
Colonel Christopher Lavender and Lieutenant Colonel Nigel Massip are part of a team of army officers called the British Gurkha Gladiators.
1st OFFICER: The idea of playing polo on elephants in Nepal is so imaginative and weird, if you like. But it's just marvelous to have done it. And you mention you've done it and people don't believe it.
2nd OFFICER: It's eccentric and outrageous in a sort of old-fashioned British way.
DEBORAH WANG: The game is said to have been first played in 18th century Mongolia, but it took two globe-trotting British sportsmen to bring it to the world stage. One of them, Jim Edwards, lives in Nepal where he owns a jungle lodge called Tiger Tops. The lodge boasts its own team of elephant who are trained mainly to take tourists on jungle safaris. One evening in a bar in Switzerland in the winter of 1981, his friend James Manclarke [sp] made an unusual suggestion.
JIM EDWARDS: And so we got chatting and he said to me, 'Jim, I know you play horse polo. Have you ever thought of playing it on elephants?' And I laughed and said, 'No, there's just no chance. The elephants are too slow, they're too big. The whole game would be just simply something after a few brandies, but nothing more.'
DEBORAH WANG: But several months later, Edwards says he received a telegram from Manclarke which read, 'Have long sticks and balls. You get elephants ready.' The idea, which started almost as a joke between friends, at first seemed to have little hope of success.
JIM EDWARDS: The elephants, of course, didn't have a clue. There were afraid of the sticks, afraid of the balls, afraid of everything, and the whole thing was a complete fiasco, although a hell of a lot of fun.
DEBORAH WANG: But somehow the elephants caught on and so did elephant polo, which is now in its 14th year. The annual tournament attracts an energetic crowd of sportsmen, party goers, and eccentrics, including Britons, Americans, Indians, and Nepalese, many of whom arrive having never seen an elephant up close and having no clue how to play.
A worried-looking teenager named Jessica is sitting atop a lurching elephant clutching the saddle as her mother tries to strap her in.
JESSICA'S MOTHER: You need to shift yourself. [crosstalk]
DEBORAH WANG: The elephant driver, or mahout, helps her choose a polo stick, and then with hardly a word of instruction on what to do, they set off atop the elephant into the screaming fray. [sounds of polo match]
There are nine elephants on the pitch, four on each team, plus the referee elephant. The referee sits on top. The job of the mahout is to position the elephant for the player. He steers with his feet, which are tucked behind the elephant's ears. The player's job is to move the ball forward, not such an easy task when the stick is more than seven feet long and the ball less than four inches wide. The level of play varies considerably from the skilled to the comical.
Alf Erickson is the captain of the only American team in the tournament, the Screwy Tuskers, which routinely comes in last.
ALF ERICKSON: Jon, for example, Jon Titley, he once played the goalie position right over here lying flat on his back with a bottle of beer in his hand. [laughs]
DEBORAH WANG: Was he on or off the elephant?
ALF ERICKSON: He was off the elephant, and I think was just sort of wandering off on his own. [laughs]
DEBORAH WANG: There are rules, but they are liberally interpreted. According to the rule book, an elephant may not lie down in front of the goal. That would be interference. And if an elephant happens to pick up the ball with its trunk, that's a foul. And that means that the world of elephant polo is an unpredictable one and sometimes champions are produced from the most unlikely material.
ANNOUNCER: The umpire with the ball, timekeepers ready. [whistle blows] And we start this 14th final of the World Elephant Polo Association Championships.
DEBORAH WANG: In this year's finals the reigning champions, a team of Nepalese representing the national parks, face off against a brand- new team from the Philippines, Los Carabaos Locos, or the wild water buffaloes.
ANNOUNCER: [bell rings] -Of the game, and what a historic result for Los Carabaos Locos and James Devivier's team from the Philippines. They win by the margin of-
DEBORAH WANG: Against all odds, the newcomers prevail. Even the players are incredulous to find themselves world elephant polo champions. Two of them, including Louie Ishmael, had never sat on an elephant before.
1st MAN: So, how do you feel?
LOUIE ISHMAEL: I feel great. We thrashed them. We just didn't even win, we thrashed them.
1st MAN: Exactly. That's the best.
DEBORAH WANG: And then, under the hot subtropical Nepalese sun, both winners and losers are awarded prizes, and the elephants, all lined up in a row, are given the customary Nepali cheer.
ANNOUNCER: And I'll tell you now, ramra hati danyabat because without the elephants, these magnificent animals, we couldn't even begin to think of this crazy sport. So it's ramra hati danyabat. [crowd repeats cheer]. Fantastic. Well done, indeed.
DEBORAH WANG: Which means in Nepali, thank you, good elephants. For National Public Radio, I'm Deborah Wang at the polo fields in southern Nepal.