Tigers, Elephants & Polo

Features Issue 103 Jun, 2010
Text and Photo By Dinesh Rai

In 1999, I made my .rst trip to Bardia on assignment for Nepal Travel Trade Re­porter, a monthly travel news magazine. In fact, that was the year I took up the profession of writing which then comple­mented my passion for photography. I had been invited by Tiger Tops Karnali Jungle Lodge to do a story on jungle safari. I’d never set foot inside a national park before, and elephant rides inside what was then the Royal Bardia National Park far exceeded my expectations. Crashing through a pristine jungle, riding on the back of an elephant is an incredible thrill for a nature lover. Watching, langurs, chitals, wild boar, rhinos, wild elephants, marsh muggers and various species of birds in the wild was like a dream come true. I was ecstatic as we watched a herd of wild elephants swim gracefully across the river just as we were approaching the very spot on a raft. It was, by coincidence, perfect timing.

After a day at the lodge, I was trans­ferred to the Tented Camp perched on the high banks of a large tributary of the Karnali River deep in the jungle. This was a veritable paradise for bird watchers as all along the river and on the banks were dozens of birds of numerous species: cormorants, Ruddy shelducks, storks, king.shers and many others. I picked up quite a few names and some beautiful birds like the Ruddy shelducks that migrate south for the winter from Tibet to sunnier climes, are hard to forget. The trip was an unforgettable experience despite the disappointment of not coming across one of those majestic cats, the Royal Bengal tiger. But of course, it is known to be an elusive animal.

Ten years since then, I had become part of the Tiger Mountain team and photo­graphing the Elephant Polo Champion­ships had become one of my responsibili­ties. So each year, I .nd myself down at the polo grounds lugging my camera, trying to keep up with the elephants, which is great for keeping .t. The World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) Championships has been held at Meghauly in Chitwan for the last 27 years. A corner of the airstrip is cor­doned off for the games, while airplanes, bringing in guests and polo players, landed and took off unhindered.

But all that changed in 2009. For the .rst time in the history of WEPA, the games were held in Bardia, just outside the national park beside the Karnali Lodge.

So I found myself in Bardia once again not only with the responsibility of photo­graphing the polo games but also to play live music for the WEPA Dog-leg Dinner at the end of the championships. I, thus also, found myself looking after three members of my band. But as the saying goes: “The more the merrier,” we all had a good time. The games had kicked off on 29 November, four days before our arrival. There were 12 teams from around the world, including those from Thailand (elephant polo is also played in Thailand under WEPA Rules & Regulations), the USA, Australia, India, the UAE, Scotland, the UK, Austria and, of course, Nepal.

The weather turned out to be perfect under the weak December sun, and I never worked up a sweat running up and down the touch line. The setting was beautiful with tall trees lined up on both sides of the .eld. Jumping on the chance to see elephant polo for the .rst time in their lives, the locals came in hordes, lin­ing up on all four sides of the vast .eld. Enterprising villagers had set up shop just outside the grounds and were doing brisk business. A running commentary through loud speakers by a member of one of the teams that wasn’t playing kept the games lively, spiced up with much humour. A team known as the Centurians from Australia had taken the trouble of bringing along Roman costumes, which added sparkle to the games.

Foreign journalists were spotted tak­ing pictures and reporting back to their papers, while Dave Painter from the UK was .lming the entire games. Equestrio, a polo magazine published in Dubai, gives extensive coverage to WEPA’s champi­onship each year with Lucy Monro, the Editor-in-Chief taking part in the games and reporting as well as photographing the event herself. British newspapers have always covered the games while various TV channels, including BBC, have .lmed the championships over the years. The immense worldwide publicity that this event generates is worth millions of dol­lars in exposure both for Ele Polo as well as Nepal, that too free of cost.

The games begin in the morning and last until late afternoon. A drinks bar keeps the spirits high, and in between games, music played through loud speakers keeps the atmosphere lively. Each chukka lasts 10 minutes, after which there is a breather when players get off the elephants and either look for better sticks, discuss strat­egy or catch up on the drinks, whichever takes priority. Some players snatched this opportunity to play cycle polo on Indian bicycles they had ordered from Nepal­gunj. This highly entertaining game kept us laughing as the cyclists ran into each other, broke seats and spokes alike. This is the type of sport that sends the message: “Don’t try this at home” to spectators. After the break, the polo players not only switch sides but also elephants so as to give each team a fair chance. Excitement soars when scoring rates are high and the teams are evenly matched. Quite often, a player displays remarkable skill, sending the ball .ying towards goal from 40 yards out and is greeted with wild cheers.

After .ve days of games, the .nals were played out on 4 December. A mas­sive crowd of local spectators gathered to watch the games. They had been informed through the local FM stations, and enthusiasm was running high. There were four championship trophies: The Tiger Tops WEPA Cup, All Nepal Chal­lenge, Olympic Amateur Quiche and the Karnali Plate. One of the most exciting games is invariably the one played out between the mahouts (strictly speaking, ‘Fanits’ in Nepali, mahouts in Nepal are lower down in the ranks of elephant handlers) of Tiger Tops and those of the National Parks. Usually, each elephant has two riders: the fanit and the player. But among fanits, there is only one rider as they guide the elephant and play the game on their own. The game is played at a furious pace and the shots are often spectacular. Thus the ball moves quickly from one end to the other. This particular match also generates loud cheers and all kinds of encouragement from the local spectators as the players belong to their community. The polo grounds take on a festive air with the boisterous crowds and visiting dignitaries like the British Ambas­sador in attendance.
Tiger Tops won the 2009 All Nepal Challenge beating the National Parks team. The latter, however, won the Ti­ger Tops WEPA Cup beating TEPA of Thailand (6-3) in a high scoring game. In a hotly contested match, Chivas Re­gal won the Olympic Amateur Quiche beating FOSROC Sepoys (5-4) and the Centurians won a thumping victory over the Karnali Dolphins (4-0) to lift the Karnali Plate. In the late afternoon, all gathered for the prize distribution. James Manclark, one of the founding members of elephant polo and WEPA, delivered a speech before giving away the prizes. Kristjan Edwards, Chairman of Tiger Mountain, was the Master of Ceremony who eventually winded up the event with a short speech.

The evening of the 4th was the WEPA Dog-leg Dinner, which was followed by dancing and merry making. The night passed quickly and it was 3 am by the time we .nished playing the last song. In no mood to sleep, we sat around the chimney drinking beer, chatting and listening to music. It was 5 am when we .nally headed for our tents. At around 7 am, there was a call for an elephant safari, which we naturally declined, fol­lowed by a wake-up call around 10 am. However, this was a special wake-up call as the messenger said, “A general strike has been called, so please pack your bags and be ready to leave immediately.”

I looked around for my band mates but our lead guitarist had vanished. We’d heard him talk about elephant safari ear­lier and presumed he had gone into the jungle. At 10:30 am, we received another message that said, “Everyone has left,

THE ELEPHANT was extremely alert and seemed to be searching for the tiger. She headed straight towards a cluster of tall bushes among the trees. Then suddenly, „Gruurh, Gruurh!!‰ the loud roar of a tiger greeted us. It was a chilling sound. In fact, it was a tigress with cubs according to our guide and naturalist, Gun Bahadur.
and the GM has said you can catch the .ight back to Kathmandu tomorrow.” Patrick, our drummer, was frantic; he had to go to church. “I have to go man,” was all he could say, but there was no way out of Bardia; we were stranded. After an hour or two, we . nally accepted our fate, settled down and decided it was meant to be, and that we might as well enjoy ourselves. “Everything happens for a reason” was our unanimous verdict. This was to prove prophetic.

We soon found out that the British Ambassador and his wife were also stay­ing back and were in the Lodge too. So in the entire lodge there were just the six of us besides the usual lodge personnel and visiting staff. We decided to go for a jungle drive in the afternoon. The boys were at last happy that we were not go­ing to sit idle waiting for the bandh to be called off. As we entered the national park, we were swamped by greenery. The lovely drive took us through the heart of the jungle and soon we surprised a pair of peacocks in their natural habitat. Further down, we encountered wild boar and herds of chital. A few hornbills .ew off when they heard the Land Rover approaching. We stopped to watch some langurs jumping around the tree tops. Patrick asked, “How far is the Karnali Bridge, can we see it?” The driver said, “Why not, we have enough time.” So off we went to walk on this famous Japanese-built bridge, which is the largest suspension bridge in Nepal.

Groups of langurs were playing near the Karnali River as we approached the bridge. We got off the Land Rover and walked the last hundred meters as there were road blocks up ahead. Looking down from this gigantic structure, we could see cormorants drying themselves on the rocks in the river below. The hills look close from here and a strong wind was blowing through the Karnali gorge. There are small eateries and shops on the other side of the bridge. Someone suggested, “Let’s have .sh,” but we were running out of time. So we took out our cameras for some quick shots and headed back to the jungle. On the drive back, one of my wishes was ful. lled. In the fading light, we suddenly came upon a Blue bull, a rare animal which seemed quite undisturbed by our presence. It’s a beautiful animal unlike any other. By the time we reached the lodge it was already dark and it was soon time for dinner. We had a lovely chat with one of the two young English girls volunteering as Guest Relations Of.cers, while enjoying our meal. The two were always there to see us off for safari and waiting when we returned, to ask how it went.

The next day, we went for two elephant rides - one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The latter had something marvellous in store for us. We were scour­ing the edges of the riverbanks when the elephant Ramkali’s ears stood up and she started swinging her trunk from side to side. The fanit instantly knew she had smelt a tiger nearby. The elephant was extremely alert and seemed to be searching for the tiger. She headed straight towards a cluster of tall bushes among the trees. Then sud­denly, “Gruurh, Gruurh!!” the loud roar of a tiger greeted us. It was a chilling sound. In fact, it was a tigress with cubs according to our guide and naturalist, Gun Bahadur.

That was a warning for us to stay away from her hideout. “She’s watching us from behind those bushes,” whispered the fanit. I could just make out the tiger’s head well camou.aged by the bushes.
Ramkali charged straight ahead, and the fanit only just managed to pull her back with his wicked looking metal hook tugging at her ear. “A tiger had once attacked this elephant and she wants to take revenge,” informed our fanit. Then there was a .erce growl like that of a cat, only ten times louder and frightening, and the wild beast charged forward before suddenly veering right and rushing back into the bush. She was only trying to scare us away. With cubs to protect, she couldn’t risk getting injured in a .ght. The elephant, this time, pushed back hastily and turned around, almost unseating us. The tiger made two more charges and went back to peer at us through the bushes. Gun Bahadur wisely instructed the fanit, “Let’s retreat and look for the male tiger. It’s somewhere nearby because he’s following the tigress and her cubs.” (Tigers often kill off the male cubs as they are seen as future ri­vals). It was a good decision because we should not cause too much distress to a nursing tigress.

Sadly, the movement of the elephant and the sudden charges by the tigress made it impossible to take even a single picture, although I did peer through the lens. We were soon back at the lodge tell­ing everyone excitedly how we’d seen a tiger at last, or tigress for that matter. It was a wish ful.lled and we looked at each other as if to say, “Everything happens for a reason!”