The regal giants of the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament are back. From August 28 to September 1 the Suriyothai Army Base in Hua Hin, Thailand will play host to over 50 elephants all trying to score goals in the name of raising money for charity. Best of all, each match is only 14 minutes long (perfect viewing for kids with a short attention span) and admission is free to all spectators. suitcases&strollers talked to John Roberts, Director of Elephants, to find out more about this unique way to experience Thailand with kids.

What does a "Director of Elephants" do exactly?

I started out directing elephants like a glorified mahout, [an elephant rider and trainer] nothing more. But as the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation has grown I spend most of my time now making sure that our own projects and those we support in the wider world are sustainable and work to the benefit of the elephants, forests and traditional communities.

Where do these polo-playing elephants come from?

They all call Surin in northeast Thailand their home but, as there's not enough work to keep an elephant in bananas and a mahout in rice up there, most are itinerant elephants and spend much of the year either begging on the streets or working in high intensity trekking camps.

We go out of our way to find elephants that need a break from their “normal” lives to play polo with us. Everything we try to do, whether through polo or in our day-to-day work, is designed to improve the lives of the elephants. If an elephant is already comfortable and happy we don't like to mess with it.

How do the elephants train for the tournament?

We don't really have to do any of that. Their full-time mahout rides them [in the matches] along with the polo player so there's always someone they know in control. As for crowds and atmosphere, most of these elephants spend their lives (or have spent a proportion of their lives) on busy city streets so, unfortunately, nothing much phases them.  

We sometimes get elephants that are [troubled by the experience] but if that happens they are retired and spend the rest or the tournament in the forest. We always bring in enough elephants to allow for this.

Is elephant polo a quick and nimble sport?

Elephants can get up to [speeds of] 25 kilometres per hour but for the most part it's not a quick game, it's all about positioning and tactics. A player that can accurately pass to a teammate half a pitch away is going to be more effective than someone who likes to keep the ball close and ask the elephant to move fast. Sometimes that just doesn't happen.

How do the polo players train to play on the elephants?

Some have been playing for years, some come and visit us in the Golden Triangle and get used to it up there, others build mock-up elephants at home. I've heard of saddles on top of cars and at least one Scottish castle with special fixtures to allow the laird to practice while sitting on his mantelpiece! 

The difference to being on a horse? A longer stick of course! But also with an elephant the mahout's in control, so you have to be nice to your elephant and to your mahout to get anywhere.

Do the elephants get tired?

Not generally. Unfortunately, in their “normal” lives the elephants will work for up to ten hours a day carrying tourists (or walking the streets at night if they're a street elephant) so this is a holiday for them.  

If we do sense that it is hard work for any particular elephant, again, we always have enough animals to allow the less-fit one to be retired. [We also have] vets on site so we can find out why the elephant might be having fitness problems.

How do the elephants unwind after the excitement and exertion of a match?

Bath, food and forest, simple as that!

Who has been your star elephant over the years?

An elephant called Dodo, I think she's retired now. We try not to use elephants over the age of 25 but what made her so good was that, even as she stopped being a fast 18 year old, she was always in the right place and almost able to predict what would happen. She would be there to get on the end of a pass, facing the right direction so all the player had to do was swing the mallet. I know that's big claim for an elephant as most players and mahouts can't read the game that well, but even though she changed mahouts several times over the years, she was consistently the best in what can be a very tactical and positional game.

For more on how you can have an intimate experience with the elephants of Thailand, see the suitcases&strollers story Ayutthaya.