6 min read

This Popular Sport In Thailand Is A Nightmare For Elephants

A new video shows what training sessions are really like for the animals 💔

Writhing around with a trainer on her back, an elephant is repeatedly hit and gouged with a sharp metal bullhook. As she winces in pain, the man violently yanks her ears and continues pounding the heavy tool down onto her head as hard as he can.

Polo is typically played on horseback, but in Thailand, there’s a cruel and unusual twist: It’s played on the backs of captive elephants instead — who are beaten and broken down in order to be trained to play the sport.

Until this year, the brutal training sessions were never caught on camera.

Since 2001, the country has hosted the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, a four-day competition that draws crowds of wealthy ticket-holders to Thailand each spring. The event claims to serve as a fundraiser for elephant conservation efforts — but keeps nearly 80 elephants in captivity overall.

According to the event’s website, the elephants who compete were “taken off the streets” and given refuge from “street life and unemployment.” But newly-released videos, which show multiple polo elephants being abused and forced to live in chains for the event, suggest anything but an easy life for the animals now.  

Elephants during the 2018 polo match in Bangkok | Instagram/OutlookIndia

Tom Taylor, assistant director of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, has a growing list of concerns about the competition. It’s likely, he said, that the elephants were poached from the wild or captive-bred in order to be trained for the event — which often leads to a lifetime of abuse.

“Most captive elephants in Thailand, particularly those used in shows or for trekking, are systematically abused throughout their long lives,” Taylor told The Dodo. “They spend most of their lives in chains, are torn away from their families and forced to work very long hours. Even if the elephants used at polo events are not beaten or physically abused while being watched by members of the public, once the event is over they are loaded back onto trucks and sent to wherever they came from.”

Although the event has a clear background of abuse, it has garnered big-name sponsorships in the past including CitiBank, IBM, Dairy Queen and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Since the release of the video footage three weeks ago, British whiskey brand Johnnie Walker has rescinded its sponsorship — noting the sport’s suspected abuse as the reason.

Since then, the page listing the event’s sponsors on its website has been disabled.
Still, a page describing how ticket sales are directly donated “to charity” remains — a facade Taylor doesn’t believe can be ethical when the elephants are trained with such brutal methods.

“To claim that this event is protecting wild Asian elephants is absurd,” Taylor said. “Funds may be raised for conservation initiatives, but money can be raised from other avenues where animals are not subject to abuse.”

The sport remains prevalent in Thailand — and the number of captive elephants overall in the country has risen to over 3,500. Instead of the tournament pretending to give some of these animals refuge, Taylor hopes the elephants can be moved to accredited sanctuaries in the future.

“The rescue of elephants in Thailand is a complex process and often a controversial one,” Taylor said. “There are numerous ethical sanctuaries or refuges that can rescue elephants and manage them in a sustainable way, which [would] help mahouts (elephant trainers) and elephants alike.”

elephant polo abuse thailand
Flickr/Roderick Eime
To help elephants rescued from the entertainment industry, you can make a donation to Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand’s Thai Elephant Refuge.