By Nate Taylor
During a routine Google search for horse polo equipment in September 2005, Kimberly Zenz came across something entirely different: elephant polo. The future team captain called Falls Church resident Courtney Zenz, her younger sister and soon-to-be teammate, and informed her that they were starting an elephant polo team.
In September 2006 the DC Pachyderms were playing their first tournament in Thailand. They placed second to last, beating the only other rookie team. Last month the D.C. Pachyderms played their second tournament as the first and only all-female elephant polo team in Sri Lanka, and placed second overall. Their next tournament is the World Elephant Polo Championship, to be held in Nepal this November, where they aim to do even better.
Except for one large and gray difference, the rules of elephant polo are largely the same as its horse-bound counterpart. Games are divided into two ten minute halves, and are played during the coolest parts of the day to avoid putting undue stress on the elephants. There are three elephants to a side, and each elephant carries both the player and a “mahout”, who “drives” the elephant. A mahout is usually the elephant’s keeper and usually does not speak English. The mahout drives the elephant, but it is up to the player to decide where to go. This means the player must either learn some basic Nepalese phrases, or figure out some other way to communicate with the mahout.
Perhaps harder than actually playing elephant polo is raising enough money to do so. Travel to India is not cheap, nor are the entry fees, much of which go to elephant habitat conservation charities, are extremely expensive, five thousand dollars per team. This makes existence for a team without sponsorship virtually impossible.
However, that is exactly what the D.C. Pachyderms have had to do. “One of the first things we did was make a sponsorship package,” says Courtney Zenz. The sponsorship package was a press kit with information on the D.C. Pachyderms and why they should be given money.
Many of their early attempts at corporate sponsorships were either rebuffed or ignored. Absolut Vodka did not respond to the D.C. Pachyderms request for sponsorship, but a month later ran an ad featuring elephant polo. “Coincidence?” Courtney asks. Eventually a teammate’s law firm, Bluestone Law International, donated money. “That was our most successful sponsorship attempt,” says Courtney. The rest of the considerable costs have been paid out of pocket by the team.
It was not too difficult for Kimberly to use Craigs List to find people interested in the idea of playing elephant polo. However, it was difficult to find people who were willing to do the required work.
“I went through about ten people on Craigs List. Another 15 people e-mailed but it never got any farther once I explained how much fundraising is required in order to play elephant polo and help the elephants,” says Kimberly. Eventually, after much searching and vetting, suitable teammates were found.
In order to play in an elephant polo tournament, each team must pay a $5,000 entrance fee. Most of tournament entrance fee money goes towards elephant habitat conservation projects. Elephant welfare is a major part of elephant polo.
Because of the prohibitive costs and logistical complications, the D.C. Pachyderms are not able to keep their own elephants, nor do any of the other teams. “The first time I actually saw an elephant up close was during our first tournament in Thailand,” says Courtney.
All teams are given three days of practice before the tournament starts, because even if a team has played before, it has been at least a few months since the last elephant polo tournament. This gives teams time to get a feel for the game and get to know the elephants. The elephants themselves are an extremely important factor of elephant polo.
Before games, a coin toss determines which team gets first pick between two groups of elephants. The teams switch elephants at the half to give both sides a fair chance. All but two of the goals scored during the tournament in Sri Lanka were scored by a comparatively small and fast female named Ronnie.
“She wasn’t easily intimidated by the other elephants so she’d go wherever she needed too,” says Courtney.
Right now the D.C. Pachyderms are enjoying the glory of their second place finish in Sri Lanka and preparing for the upcoming World Elephant Polo Championship in Nepal in November, which means more fundraising.
“The sport now gets a bit of attention but it’s still very difficult,” says Kimberly. The Pachyderms are hoping that their unexpected performance in Sri Lanka will help them attract sponsors.
They are also training, which is difficult without elephants. “This can be done through other hobbies, such as my horse polo or it can be done using homemade long mallets and standing on top of a swing set as other teammates roll balls at us.” The Pachyderms have made mallets out of the bamboo that grows in Glen Echo Park.
All of the considerable effort and work that the D.C. Pachyderms must put in is made worth it when they finally get to play Elephant Polo. “It’s almost like summer camp for adults,” says Courtney. While the competition on the field is fierce, everyone is friends again in time for a large party later in the evening.
The rules of elephant polo, along with it’s culture and attitude seem to be all geared towards equal competition and having fun, rather than a winner-takes-all “Nike swoosh” mentality. That’s not to say that the competition isn’t fierce.
“When your screaming at the mahout, and the mahouts screaming back at you and the crowd is screaming to tell you where the ball is because you can’t find, it because it’s lost under all the elephants,” Courtney grins, “It’s really fun.”
The DC Pachyderms are currently courting sponsors and recruiting new team members.
Interested parties should contact them through their website www.dcelephantpolo.com.