Friendly giants arrive in the big city for a high society charity celebration
The month of March is upon us which means it’s time once again for one of Thailand’s most unique and unusual events—the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, which takes place from March 8th to the 11th on the playing grounds next to the beautiful Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort.
Now in its 16th year, this four-day extravaganza attracts local and international media, Bangkok residents, visiting tourists, and polo players from faraway countries who travel to Thailand (friends and families in tow) to compete in this one-of-a-kind event. Everyone in attendance is treated to a host of activities—as well as the exciting polo matches—which include the Grand Opening parade, an elephant blessing ceremony by Buddhist monks, a gigantic fruit buffet for the hungry jumbos, a charity gala dinner and auction, as well as music and dance performances, sideshows, and food and drink from Thailand and around the world. Another annual tradition is the Ladies’ Day Fashion Show—known as the Bangkok Ascot—taking place on Saturday, March 10th at 5pm. And as 2018 is officially recognized as the Year of the Woman, and the Elephant Polo festivities kick off on March 8th (aka: International Women’s Day), this will be a not-to-be-missed event.
Every year there is a fun-filled, carnival-like atmosphere at this family-friendly event, which the thousands of out-of-town visitors always seem to enjoy (leaving with more than a few stories to tell their friends back home). But let’s not forget that the whole shebang is essentially a fund-raiser for the elephants themselves, as well as elephant-related charities, and since it first began the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament has become one of the biggest charitable events in Southeast Asia, with over US$1.3 million (B46 million) raised so far. It’s also important to remember—given that the elephant is Thailand’s national animal—that the care and welfare of the participating pachyderms is always of paramount importance, for the organizers, the mahouts, and the team players alike.
“The elephants that take part are chosen for us by the Zoological Parks Organization (ZPO) of Thailand, and are nowadays all females between the ages of 15 to 25, although some young elephants will also be there to meet and greet the kids on Children’s Day,” explained John Roberts (Thailand’s Mr. Elephant), the Director of Elephants at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Chiang Rai, and its attendant elephant camp in the jungle.
John went on to point out that the recipients of the monies raised vary from year to year, but that they try to find a mix of long-term projects and new ones that help to fill a perceived gap that will help communities and elephants co-exist better together. The ZPO has long had a vision of setting up an elephant health care unit, and was seeking funding and partnerships. The Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), which is part of the organization responsible for putting on the King’s Cup, and US-based NGO Veterinarians International, donated a pair of four-wheel drive trucks. The GTAEF also financed the hiring of one full-time elephant vet and one vet technician that enabled a mobile elephant clinic to be deployed for the very first time at the elephant villages of Baan Ta Klang, in Surin—which is known in Thailand as Changwat Chang (elephant province). The clinic and its veterinary team have now completed the first 10 months of operation, have saved the life of three elephant calves, and have dealt with over 100 minor health care emergencies, such as wound dressing and cleaning, and dealing with abscesses, diarrhoea, lameness, and respiratory symptoms. Selected mahouts also receive vet tech training, and are able to help the elephant doctors who are called out to emergencies.
Another, rather unique project is the Thai Elephant-Assisted Therapy Project (TETP) which helps young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) through interacting with, and caring for, elephants (while at the same time supporting the welfare and conservation of elephants in rural Thailand). TETP began its work in 2007 as a collaboration between conservationists, occupational therapy practitioners, and researchers at Chiang Mai University, and these experts see it as a perfect match
“Elephants have a basic empathy,” enthused John Roberts, “and that makes them perfect to work with special needs children. They look at us without judging us.” This, of course, is very important to the kids with ASD and their families, who are often looked at in a bad light.
Donations have also been given to more niche projects, including: the construction of a watch tower in a village whose crops are raided by elephants; English language training for the people in the elephant villages; training for the next generation of mahouts to learn the importance of elephants in the wild; and educational trips for children. In addition, a B500,000 grant was given to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC) to help lame elephants learn to stand again.
But when all is said and done, you have to wonder… do the elephants enjoy their polo games? Well, that’s hard to say, since we don’t speak elephant, but John Roberts is also the umpire of the games and he is on the pitch with them for all the matches that are played, every second of every game. He says that some of the elephants really do seem to learn what is expected of them, and he has noticed several times an elephant appearing to admonish the player riding on his back when he had missed a shot at goal after being put in a perfect position to score.
“I begin to spot patterns of behaviour,” remarked John, “and last year, towards the end of the tournament, a couple of the elephants were reacting to a game situation even before the mahouts or players could. Quite remarkable, really!”
VISITOR INFO: The King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament runs from March 8th to 11th, 2018, in a riverside clearing located directly beside the Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort. There is a free river shuttle boat to the hotel which departs from the Saphan Taksin bridge (Saphan Taksin BTS station), as well as free shuttle vans to the site from the hotel. Tickets are B200 per day, VIP tickets are B3,000, and all proceeds to charity.
By Robin Westley Martin