The action was hot and heavy — especially heavy — as competition began Thursday in Thailand's King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament, a quirky charity event whose proceeds benefit the beasts who are the games' stars.
The game deviates from standard polo in several aspects, aside from the mounts weighing upward of 2,200 kilograms (5,000 pounds). Two people — the player and a mahout, or trainer, sit astride each elephant. The mallets are about two meters (6.6 feet) long, and women are allowed to use both hands to wield them.
Elephants are the de facto national animal of Thailand, and for a time even adorned the country's flag. But in the past few decades, they have fallen on hard times, as deforestation has deprived them of a habitat where they can roam wild and led to massive unemployment in logging, the sector where tamed elephants could once earn an honest living.
The tournament's organizer, a Thai-owned international hotel chain, say that since the games began in 2001 — originally in the seaside resort city of Hua Hin but now in the capital, Bangkok — they have raised almost $950,000 for projects benefiting Thailand's elephants, "including housing for the mahouts and families, shelters for the elephants and a mobile blood centrifuge and elephant ambulance for the Thai Elephant Conservation Center."
The playing beasts can count on a special treat after each match, sugar cane or a nutritious mix of molasses and rock salt in rice balls, to replace depleted vitamins and minerals.