The annual King Maha Vajiralongkorn Elephant Polo Cup kicked off on Thursday in Bangkok.
The tournament - a four-day competition in a field in the heart of the Thailand’s capital - is intended to raise funds for elephants, an emblematical animal in the kingdom that is often subject to abuse.
The King’s cup, now in its 16th edition, has raised over US$1.5 million for charities that help elephants across Thailand.
Ten teams contest the cup
Italia Polo Elephant Team 🇮🇹 ready for the first match at King’s Cup in Bangkok! After supporting our azzurri team, enjoy #VivereALLItaliana lifestyle: top wines, spumante, drinks, pizza and...water! #anantaraelephantpolo #ItalianFestivalThailand #ItalyThailand150 #AmbNisio pic.twitter.com/BUA5q9JEuG— Italy in Thailand (@ItalyinThailand) 8 March 2018
The annual tournament brings together ten teams of polo players, most of them from Thailand and some from different countries around the globe.
This year, Americans, Indians, Italians and Thais are contesting the King’s Cup
Similar to regular-horseback polo, handlers – known as mahouts - steer the elephants while players wielding long sticks take aim at a white ball rolling around the field, and trying to get it into the opponent’s goal.
Each team consists of three elephants, with animals allowed to stand for a maximum of half an hour a day.
Among other rules, the pachyderms are not allowed to pick the ball in its trunk during play or to lie down in front of the goal line.
Sugar cane or rice balls packed with vitamins shall be given to the animals at the end of each match. In addition, each game is monitored by veterinarians.
According to the tournament’s official website, the animals only respond to Thai commands from their mahouts.
Elephants receive plush treatment
#Elephants used in #tourism often go thru intense&cruel training for our ‘entertainment’, please #doyourresearch (a “sanctuary” isn’t always a Sanctuary!)— Thailand Elephants (@ThailandElephan) 7 January 2018
Check out - https://t.co/BL0D2YtPZ7 for help&advice in having an #ethical experience.
Photo Credit - Toni Uni pic.twitter.com/Hyaj7uzOvY
Since its first edition in 2001, the tournament has often faced criticism from animal rights activists, who argue that handlers must inflict pain on the elephants to maneuver them around the field.
However, the organizers claim that the pachyderms receive a plush treatment and plenty of rest.
"They are elephants that may normally work in camps somewhere...and our aim is to bring them here for a week of vacation so to say. We have our vets here, they are being well fed, they're having a very good time," Tim Boda, one of the organizers, told AFP.
According to the competition’s official website: “The health and welfare of the elephants used in the tournament is of prime concern, and abuse of an elephant is considered to be the most serious offence”.
The money raised from the previous edition was donated to trainings for mahouts and vets, plus projects aimed at mitigating conflicts between elephants and Thai villagers, according to the organizers.
Elephants: Endangered Thai symbol
The Thai elephant is the official national animal of Thailand; an endangered species that saw its population decrease from 400,000 (among wild and captive) in the early 1900s to an estimated of 7,000 in 2006.
Thailand is the global epicenter of the elephant tourism industry. Visitors are charged for a chance to ride and bathe the animals that, in most cases, are kept in cruel conditions.
According to the World Animal Protection, nearly 3,000 elephants are used for tourist entertainment at tourist venues in Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Laos, Cambodia, and mainly, Thailand, with 2,198 animals held in captivity for tourist activities.