The annual King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament put on by the Anantara Hotel in Bangkok garners little international attention and very little interest from anyone in Thailand, for that matter.
But after handlers were filmed last week beating and gouging elephants and yanking on their ears with steel hooks, condemnation of the event was swift, harsh and global. It’s time to end this cruel spectacle.
Behind the scenes, I watched handlers repeatedly striking elephants with bull hooks – heavy batons with a sharp hook on the end. These weapons were wrapped in cloth during the polo events but uncovered elsewhere. Without the use of these tools of torture, elephants can’t be displayed in public. Captive elephants live in fear of being beaten, which is why they so often behave submissively, even though they can be heard bellowing in distress.
Elephants used for polo, rides, shows and other forms of “entertainment” suffer tremendously. The only way they will tolerate having people ride around on their backs in polo games, or for any other reason, is if they are first broken mentally and emotionally. They’re chained and beaten with bull hooks or other painful devices and are constantly threatened with violence to keep them afraid and obedient.
When not performing, elephants are typically deprived of everything that’s natural and important to them, including the opportunity to walk around and socialise, and they spend most of their life in chains.
Elephants are highly social beings. In nature, they thrive in matriarchal herds, protecting each other, caring for their babies and travelling many kilometres a day. Aunts babysit, siblings roughhouse and play, and grandmothers teach youngsters life skills, such as how to use different kinds of leaves and mud to ward off sunburn.
Elephants have the largest brains of any mammal on Earth, and they think, plan and remember. There’s truth in the saying that elephants never forget; their memories are long and extraordinary, including the ability to remember lost loved ones. Their rituals for mourning the deaths of family members rival those that humans have developed.
While resort management claims that the handlers who were caught striking elephants last week were expelled, this kind of violence is business as usual in Thailand. Baby elephants are routinely beaten and subjected to other egregiously cruel forms of training. Tellingly, animals continued to be beaten and left chained on the polo grounds in floodwaters even after an exposé was released.
Public opposition to the use of elephants and other animals in entertainment is stronger than ever before. As a result, dozens of travel agencies worldwide have stopped booking elephant-ride excursions.
The organiser of the International Elephant Polo Competition, tourism company Tiger Tops, recently announced that it would stop hosting the event in order to take a stand against cruelty to animals. Years ago, the London-based publishers removed all references to elephant polo from the Guinness World Records books because of the abuse that elephants endure in the game. And the same year, following discussions with PETA India, Carlsberg Group withdrew its sponsorship of the Polo Cup.
Trying to spin elephant exploitation as altruistic is transparently self-serving and fools no one. Forcing these battered endangered animals to participate in silly spectacles is shameful and reprehensible.
Jason Baker is Asia’s vice president of international campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).