PETA accuses polo of cruelty

BANGKOK 13 March 2018: After four days of festivities on the banks of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, the 16th King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament came to a close Sunday, having raised THB 4 million for elephant welfare programmes.

The charity event over its 16 years has raised around THB 55 million for various high-profile projects. The main sponsor is Anantara Hotels and Resorts owned by Thailand-headquartered Minor Group.

Some elephant welfare experts frown on using elephants for sports or circus tricks, but the organisers claim the elephants recruited for the polo matches are treated humanely and given the best veterinary treatment and checks.

However, this year’s celebrations were marred by allegations of animal mistreatment posted on social media.

Just hours after the organisers released details of their successful funding raising, Khao Sod newspaper posted allegations of abuse with at least one incident captured on a video by PETA, an international animal protection agency.

The friendly polo matches field 20 unemployed ex-street elephants during which time they received full veterinary checks from the Zoological Parks Organisation of Thailand and the Department of Livestock Development.

Funds from the 2018 event will be donated to various projects including the Zoological Parks Organisation of Thailand, which supports veterinary and educational projects to improve the lives of elephants and mahouts in Surin Province where ex-street elephants face ongoing hardship.

Although, focusing on a single incident showing a mahout striking an elephant with a bull-hook during an interval between matches, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals went as far as to call on the organisers to end the annual festival.

Khao Sod quoted Minor Group chairman, William Heinecke, the event’s host, as saying that one case of animal mistreatment does not merit cancelling the annual event.

“We can’t destroy all of the good things that we’re doing with the other mahouts and the other elephants,” Heinecke said at the conclusion of the tournament, held on a field close to Minor Group’s five-star Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort. “Part of our programme … is to educate mahouts how to treat elephants. If anybody’s got a better programme we’ll support it.”

PETA claims its video showed various elephants struck on the head and jabbed with bull-hooks by their handlers, which it said was inconsistent with the event’s claim to support animal welfare.

According to the Khao Sod report, Heinecke confirmed that the organisers had fired the mahout who was accused of beating an elephant.

PETA Asia responded saying it was not an isolated incident noting that the mahout’s dismissal was not enough and called for the tournament to be terminated.

During the tournament, mahouts wielded bull-hooks wrapped in what appeared to be electrical tape according to Khao Sod.

Heinecke said that elephants were treated well and that a team of veterinarians was always on standby.

The incident illustrates the dilemma facing the use of elephants in tourism. There are an estimated 3,000 domestic elephants linked to tourist activities and there have been calls to end circus acts and rides.

The question for critics is can they come up with a better way to raise THB 4 million to support elephant welfare protection?  If not, can the Elephant Polo organisers guarantee the event in no way compromises the health of the elephants and can the assurances be substantiated by independent experts?