DAMNING video footage has marred a controversial charity polo event involving elephants in Thailand, with activists calling for it to be shut down.
Held in the capital Bangkok from March 8 to 11, the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament styles itself as a fundraiser for elephant welfare programs and other charitable causes. Now in its 16th year, the Cup is said to boast “gentle giants, sporting excitement and [a] luxurious aura of glamour”.
Anantara Hotel, which organises and hosts the event, described it as “a highlight of international high society’s annual social calendars and an unparalleled media extravaganza.”
Its wide array of local and international sponsors included Thailand’s Tourism Authority, Chang beer, Citibank, Dilmah tea, Hooters Asia and Ricoh. Participants in the tournament represented companies such as the consultancy PWC, tech giant IBM, and Johnny Walker.
“They are elephants that may normally work in camps somewhere … and our aim is to bring them here for a week of vacation so to say,” one of the organisers told AFP prior to the event. “We have our vets here, they are being well fed, they’re having a very good time.”
Video released by activist group the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on Friday, however, showed a less glamourous “behind the scenes” look at the tournament. Footage shows handlers, known as mahouts, using bullhooks to bash the animals over the head and drag them by the ears.
“The only way to make elephants tolerate having humans riding around on their backs for polo games or any other reason is to ‘break’ them,” said a statement from PETA. “They’re chained and beaten with bullhooks or other weapons and constantly threatened with violence.”
“If we look honestly at the reality of life in captivity for elephants compared to the life that they would have in nature, we can see how far trainers have degraded these magnificent animals,” it said.
PETA’s investigation sparked a response from Anantara Hotels regarding the animals’ treatment, with the organisation claiming in a statement that the treatment of elephants in the videos was “wholly contradictory” to the purpose of the tournament.
“In light of the unacceptable behaviour seen in the video footage, Anantara Hotels and Resorts has strictly reemphasised the policies, procedures and required behaviours required with all remaining mahouts and has taken additional steps to prevent the recurrence of these or similar instances,” it said.
Anantara also said “extra security” had been organised for the remainder of the tournament.
Some 4 million Thai baht (US$128,000) was raised from this year’s event for “elephant charity projects”, reported Thai daily The Nation. Organisers claim that King’s Cup has raised around $1.5 million for charity to date.
PETA said previous pressure over mistreatment of elephants had led tourism provider Tiger Tops to stop hosting the International Elephant Polo Competition, while Guinness World Records has removed any mention of elephant polo from its publications.