by Frankie Taggart
A portly consultant takes an inch-perfect pass from a balding banker, slots the ball home with clinical precision and punches the air with both arms, David Beckham style.
This is “champagne polo”, the commentator yells, but champagne polo with a difference, for the steed behind the winning goal weighs several tonnes and has just let go of a dung pile which looks the size of a small family car.
We are approaching the climax of the World Elephant Polo Championships, with players from across the globe gathering in a remote airfield in southern Nepal for a week of one of the most elite and glamorous sports around.
“Some players are looking very tired out there,” says Peter Prentice, a Hong Kong-based veteran of the tournament who chairs the World Elephant Polo Association and doubles up as a rather urbane commentator.
“I recommend a few repetitions of light weights to warm down and certainly a half a Carlsberg is about the right weight to relax those weary muscles.
“Seven to ten reps should do it, followed by a few lighter reps. A sauvignon blanc and then a chablis over ice or two should do the trick.”
Meanwhile a former Miss Nepal is told she is holding her stick the wrong way around.
Thus the tone is set for the exclusive business of elephant polo, a week of of fine wine, good food and socialising in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, home to Bengal tigers, rhinos and, for one week a year, playboys and aristocrats.
The annual event, hosted by the Tiger Tops jungle resort, has attracted models, celebrities and other glitterati over the years, including former Beatle Ringo Starr and comedians Billy Connolly and Max Boyce.
But at the business end of the tournament the participants take their sport very seriously indeed.
“Players do look to the umpire to make the right decisions and don’t take it lightly if a decision doesn’t go their way,” says Dubai-based former Gurkha and logistics consultant Nigel Lea, 33, who got his eye in by swinging his mallet from the roof of a Land Rover Discovery in the desert.
“But the joy of elephant polo is that because you are all together as a community that only sees each other once a year, 30 seconds after walking off the pitch we calm down, shake hands and have a beer together.”
It is easy to understand why the players do not like to go home empty-handed — the package per person is around the $3,500 mark for a week and the entry fee for each team works out at an eye-watering $10,000.
“I don’t think it’s a sport for posh people,” Lea says, however. “Some people here have a lot of money, some people can hardly rub two coppers together.”
Elephant polo was dreamt up 30 years ago over drinks at a Swiss ski resort and is based on the rules of horse polo, with a smaller pitch to cater for the less energetic steeds.
But thinking you’ll be any good on an elephant just because you can ride a horse is rather like assuming you’ll be able to master the controls of a Sherman tank after taking a cycling proficiency course.
Two teams of four players in pith helmets sit astride elephants controlled by mahouts, or trainers, who drive them on using oral commands and pressure from their feet.
Communication is the main problem as the mahouts speak only Nepali, as do their mounts, who are thought to be able to understand about 30 words.
Players carry sticks up to eight feet (2.5 metres) long to hit the ball towards the opposing goal, with each game comprising two 10-minute chukkas.
The list of enthusiasts is illustrious. Cheering from the sidelines this year is Colonel Raj Kalaan, who played with the Indian Polo team for 20 years, owns the Haryana Polo Club near Delhi and commanded India’s 61st Cavalry.
Local people also turn up in their thousands every year to cheer on a team put together by the park warden and his staff, who work with elephants every day and are often among the top performers.
This year’s title was successfully defended by a team led by 72-year-old Scotsman James Manclark, a horse polo player and former Olympic tobogganist who invented the elephant version over a drink with Jim Edwards, a pioneer of eco-tourism in Nepal.
Elephant polo is not without its detractors, chief among them animal welfare groups who have campaigned against the sport in India.
It is immediately obvious, however, that elephant welfare is the top priority at Tiger Tops and the animals’ treatment is reminiscent of the pampering that thoroughbred racehorses enjoy.
The ever-attentive mahouts lovingly clean and care for their mounts, treating them at the end of each match to molasses sandwiches to keep their strength up.
Conservation is also a key issue for Tiger Tops and the WEPA, which has contributed thousands of pounds towards animal welfare and other schemes benefiting Nepal over the years.
“If you see how they are here, you can see they are happy and in their natural habitat,” said Stine Edwards, captain of the all-women Tiger Tops Tigresses team, which ended the tournament with an impressive third place.
Stine’s husband Kristjan Edwards was born and raised in Nepal, speaks Nepali as a first language and has the advantage of having spent most of his life on the back on an elephant.
“An elephant will never do anything it doesn’t want to do,” says Stine. “They (the senior players) all have their own elephants and they would never do anything which would not be good for their elephants.”
The intellect of the elephants is often underestimated, according to the players, who say it obvious their mounts know what they are doing on the field.
“They are so bright. One year we had an elephant who would complain when you missed the ball,” says Stine, mimmicking the animal’s trumpeting raised trunk with an arm.
“He’d be saying: ‘You — can’t you just hit the ball? I’m on a run here!’”