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Culture

Germans Go for Gold in Pachyderm Polo

German athletes have put pachyderms to work for them in Thailand and are hoping they can bring home a trophy in the elephant polo world championships.

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Elephant polo: a new Olympic sport?

In principle, elephant polo hardly differs from the version with horses: people wielding long bats ride on the animals and try to shoot balls into goals. Thus, it's only natural that Oliver Winter, one of the co-founders of the King's Cup elephant polo tournement in Thailand, was a traditional polo player to start with. Although elephant polo has been around for nearly 100 years, the world championship series held in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal is new.

"I lived in Thailand a few years," Oliver Winter told DW-WORLD. The elephants weren't very happy there, he said: they were either idle or bored by carrying tourists around. "So we thought we should keep them busy." Since 2000, the King's Cup tournament has been the second stage in the world series in elephant polo.

"It's a good thing for elephants," said Winter. "They have an unbelievable play instinct." But because their playfulness also meant the end for many a rubber ball, the human handlers were forced to find sturdy replacements. "Now we play with genuine polo balls. They're made of plastic, slightly larger than a field hockey ball." And they're elephant-proof.

Elephants may not cheat

The game requires teams of three players strapped to elephants to use eight-foot (2.44 meter) long bamboo bats to shoot the small white balls into the goal. Elephants are neither allowed to lay down in front of the goal to prevent scoring nor to use their trunks to shoot goals.

But the elephants in Thailand only understand Thai, those in Nepal only know Nepalese. "That's why everyone has a chauffeur who steers the animal," Winter explained. The players tell these men, called "mahouts," where they want to go.

The least desirable part in the game is that of the "super pooper scoopers." They are charged with disposing of the elephants droppings and retrieving the ball when it lands in a pile.

Germans try to stay on top

Deutsches Team gewinnt Elefanten-Polo

Germans Oliver Winter (middle), Hugo Goetz (left) and Dirk Goetz (right) took home the King's Cup last year, after beating Scotland.

The German national team, which won the King's Cup in 2002 and 2003 and is going for another trophy this year, train for the sport that reaches speeds of up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour using a Hummer sport utility vehicle that weighs almost as much as an elephant. "We rebuilt the Jeep with a high seat on top," Winter said. "One person drives, one sits up top and bats and one puts down the ball over and over."

Winter, who a Thai newspaper once dubbed the Franz Beckenbauer of elephant polo, played in the first Kin'g Cup with his brothers Christopher and Thomas. Now he and Dirk and Hugo Goetz make up one of 16 teams from India, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and other countries with sponsors including Mercedes Benz and Nokia.

Animal welfare

But Winter said the priority was put on the elephants' health. "Each team pays an amount that benefits the elephant." Of the 150,000 elephants that once lived in Thailand, only 2,500 are left.

Jürgen Faulmann from PETA Germany, an animal protection organization, contended that elephant polo was abusive. "They use electrical shocks, bullhooks and nooses to teach the elephants to play the game. It is not nonviolent," Faulmann said.

"Elephants don't want to be captured," he explained. "Even when born in captivity, an elephant cub resists doing what it doesn't want to do. Of course, it's abuse because they're wild animals."

But that apparently won't stop Oliver Winter, whose team is fighting again to win the King's Cup, which runs until September 12. He hopes to wrest away the world cup from Sri Lanka at the final championship tournament in Nepal in December.

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