Mammoth battles at Nepal elephant polo championship

Nawalparasi (Nepal) (AFP) - The elephants lumber across the field on the edge of a Nepalese jungle in pursuit of a small white ball. It might be slightly slower-paced than its horseback equivalent, but there's nothing sedate these polo pachyderms.

Nepal has hosted the annual international elephant polo championships since 1982, attracting players, celebrities, adventure-seekers -- and the occasional first timer -- for a chance to take part in one of the most unusual sports around.

The game is based on horse polo, but with two people on the back of each elephant -- a mahout that does the driving and the player who is concentrating on scoring.

The players wield 2.5 metre (96 inches) long mallets to reach the ground from the back of their mammoth steeds.

"It might look slow and easy, but it quite hard," said Bhim Bahadur Tamang, 62, captain of the Nepal-based Tiger Tops Tuskers team -- who won this year's championship on Friday.

"You have to know how your elephants move and be strategic to win," he said.

This year, eight four-member teams took part in the championship, with players flying in from over ten countries including Britain, the United States, Australia, Iceland, Holland and Sri Lanka.

The idea was first conceived in a Swiss resort -- reportedly over a drink, or two -- more than three decades ago by Brit A.V. Jim Edwards, who was among the first to run safaris in Nepal, and his friend James Manclark, an avid polo player.

It has since grown into a series of tournaments held in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Nepal.

The annual event, hosted by the Tiger Tops travel company, has over the years had an illustrious guest list of celebrities, including former Beatle Ringo Starr and the comedian Billy Connolly.

But the organisers said this year may be the last for the jumbo tournament in Nepal.

"The games have raised awareness for elephant conservation and welfare... but we don't plan to do this next year," said Edwards's son Kristjan, who now heads Tiger Tops.

"We've always been ahead of the game in the way we treat our elephants. We prefer our elephants to remain as elephants, and the elephant polo is hardly that."

Canadian Katie McGowan, 32, who was taking part in the championship for the first time this year, said playing the game exceeded her expectations.

"It is sad to know I cannot come back next year. But I'm excited for all the good work they are doing for the elephants."

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