Elephants take part in polo tournament in Bangkok to raise money amid criticism from animal activists

Players take part in an exhibition match during the annual charity King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament in Bangkok, Thailand on March 10, 2016.
Players take part in an exhibition match during the annual charity King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament in Bangkok, Thailand on March 10, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - A herd of elephants romped across a Bangkok pitch on Thursday (March 10) for the first match of a four-day polo tournament raising money for the animals, which are heralded as a national symbol but often subject to abuse.

Eighteen pachyderms are playing in the annual King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, held this year on a large field in the heart of the Thai capital.

During the lumbering and unsurprisingly slow-paced matches, a "mahout" handler controls the beasts, while a polo player who is also riding on the elephant's back concentrates on scoring.

This year's tournament sees a motley mix of humans competing, including professional polo players, New Zealand rugby stars, Thai celebrities and members of a transgender cabaret troupe.

Some of the competing elephants are taking time out from their day jobs in the tourist industry, while others are domesticated but currently unemployed, according to the event's organisers, the luxury hotel group Anantara.

It says the cup, now in its 14th year, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities that assist Thailand's domesticated elephants, of which there are an estimated 4,000.

Mr Tim Boda, one of the hotel staff running the tournament, said elephants in the tournament are given ample time to rest compared to their daily work lives.

"They're getting their doctor's check ups, they're getting vitamins, they have more food than they normally ever get hopefully," he told AFP.

Many of Thailand's pachyderms are employed by tour companies that charge visitors for a chance to ride and bathe the beasts, a lucrative but controversial tourist draw in the kingdom.

Activists say animals are often subject to daily abuse, while unemployed elephants face bleak lives tethered to a chain for much of the day.

A string of recent scandals and violent outbreaks - including an elephant that threw and then trampled a British tourist to death last month - have placed the industry under scrutiny.

Mr Edwin Wiek, a veteran animal rights activist from the Wildlife Friends of Thailand, slammed the charity polo event as inhumane.

"Even the amount of money (raised) doesn't justify the way you do it," he told AFP, describing how the riders must inflict pain on the elephants to steer them around the pitch and provoke crowd-pleasing roars.