Behind Thailand’s biggest elephant fundraising effort: the Anantara King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament.
John Roberts is between a rock and a hard place. Well, many hard places; probably with even more rocks. As Director for Elephants for Anantara Hotels and Resorts, his job demands are just as formidable as his charges.
And for two hectic weeks a year, the 38-year-old Englishman takes himself away from his beloved elephant camp, an hour outside Chiang Rai, to oversee Thailand’s biggest elephant fundraising effort: the Anantara King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Thailand’s version of the Hamptons, Hua Hin. And that’s a hard place.
“A lot of people ask me if I would have invented elephant polo,” he tells me, over a beer next to the polo pitch. “And no, I wouldn’t have.”
So why does he do it, if he wishes it didn’t really exist?
“It’s going to happen anyway and I make sure it does good things,” he says. “Polo is not bad for an elephant. It’s a darn sight better than being on the streets.”
By ‘on the streets’, John means half-starved, sick and probably drugged, spending 10 hours each day begging for food and money, and hoping their mahout(owner) spends some of those earnings on the elephant’s care.
It’s from this life on the streets that the elephants on the pitch are enjoying a brief respite. For the two weeks they participate in the tournament they are properly cared for; fed healthy, full meals, vet checks and medication, and an appropriate workload of only two games of polo a day.
While the competition gives 42 elephants a holiday, the bigger and more far-reaching effect of the competition is fund raising.
“The major goal is to raise money to spend on other people’s projects. We don’t spend any of the money raised through fundraising here on our own elephants [those in johns care in Chiang Rai] but support projects keeping elephants in the wild or helping the vets who are looking after all the elephants in Thailand.”
And what about a long term solution?
That’s a completely different ball game, John says. “None of us have any real answers in what to do. The best thing in my opinion, would be to have two or three populations of captive elephants, based in areas with people who have a long history of looking after elephants.” He gestures to the mahouts nearby, who are involved in this tournament. “These guys come from Surin. All of their culture is based around having elephants.“
As for the dirty words ‘elephant tourism’, that’s another beastly issue. On one hand, tourism provides income for captive elephants, who require much looking after (250kg of food a day, for starters). But tourism also fuels the demand for more elephants to be recruited, and forced into the life of captivity. And John’s solution?
To bring tourism to his proposed elephant populations, rather than bringing the elephants to the tourists. That way, he says, “if a tourist wants to ride an elephant, they need to travel all the way to peoples homes, and pay a lot of money to ride one.” And that’d be a lot better than what’s happening right now, he says – “where people roll off the beach and buy an elephant ride for 200 baht (AUD$6).” It’s conditions like that that force elephants to work 10 hours a day, he says.
But for the time being, John has to work slowly on each project. The record 3.3 million baht (AUD$102,000 – a fraction of the money required) raised from the charity auction at the Gala dinner event is a great result for John, but as with any major task, it’s one small step at time.
The polo is the Kings Cup Elephant Polo tournament held every September in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin.
Visit John at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp to support his work and the Thai elephants.
Or donate to his charity, the Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation.
For more on the plight of street elephants, see www.eleaid.com/index.php?page=streetelephants