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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

How Elephant Polo Is Saving the Elephants—and Kids with Autism

What do you get when you cross the world's largest land mammal with a mallet? Elephant Polo! Bangkok's unique charity event not only helps to rescue and care for Thai elephants, but also raises money for a one-of-a-kind program where massive pachyderms work with some of the most vulnerable children in Thailand.

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new-pet-therapyCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

 A new kind of pet therapy

It may sound counter-intuitive, but in Thailand, some of the world’s largest animals have been tasked with helping kids with special needs. It’s part of an initiative called the Thai Elephant Therapy Program (TETP) in the Northern Thailand town of Lampang, where rescued elephants are trained to work with autistic children. It’s an unusual program, to say the least, supported by an equally unusual event: elephant polo. (These are the 12 things you should never say to an autism parent.)

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Elephants-play-poloCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

Elephants play polo?

The annual King‘s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament raises awareness, and money ($1.4 million to date), for a range of elephant charities. The tournament, now in its 15th year, involves 10 teams, each with three elephants, three players, and three mahouts (professional elephant handlers; here they ride up in front of the players, since really, there’s no such a thing as a “professional” elephant polo player).

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don't-reallyCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

Elephants don’t really play polo

Although the players try to strategize, realistically, an elephant goes where an elephant wants to go. And that’s okay, according to Thai Elephant Polo Association president Chris Stafford: “The whole purpose of the tournament is to get elephants off the street and to raise money for charity.”

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play-poloCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

Elephants endangered

Asian elephants are one of the most endangered wild animals species in the world; there are fewer than 5,000 elephants currently in Thailand, a 95 percent drop from a century ago. Although they’re revered as sacred in Thailand, they’re still used as beasts of burden in many urban areas. The city conditions are extremely difficult for elephants, as there are dangers from cars, crowded streets, and extreme heat.

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spoiledCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

Polo elephants get spoiled

Luckily, the elephants who participate in the tournament play for only 30 minutes; the rest of the time they have health and wellness checkups and get an opportunity to chow down at a massive all-you-can-eat fruit and vegetable buffet filled with elie favorites such as bananas, pineapple, and corn.

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closeCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

Rescuing elephants, rescuing kids

Although the King’s Cup started in 2001 to get elephants out of the city and into the forest, as the tournament progressed, it began to work with charities that benefit elephants, including the Thai Elephant Therapy Project. It may not sound like the next logical step to have rescued elephants work with kids on the autism spectrum, but kids and elephants seem to have a natural affinity for each other, you wouldn’t believe their natural connection.

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rescuingCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

Close encounters of the elephant kind

The bonding is a sight to behold at the annual Chang Noi (Little Elephant) Kid’s Day at the King’s Cup each year when hundreds of local school children spend the day learning about and interacting with the pachyderm players and squealing with delight as the elephants come trunk to nose with their pint-size fans.

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beastsCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

Beasts of unburden

Elephant experts also see it as a perfect match: “Elephants have a basic empathy” that makes them perfect to work with special needs children, according to John Roberts, Director of Elephants and Conservation for Anantara (Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas sponsors the tournament and runs the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation near Chang Mai). “They look at us without judging us,” he adds of elephants, which is an important aspect for families who may feel under a magnifying glass in other situations.

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endangeredCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

First-of-its-kind program

Animal therapy isn’t new, but having elephants work with kids is a first, so TETP, which was created in conjunction with Chiang Mai University, has developed a range of special activities designed to provide autistic children with an opportunity to develop their social interaction and emotional skills.

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sports-good-funCourtesy Anantara Hotels & Resorts

Elephant sports are good fun—and good therapy

The kids work with occupational therapists to both learn how to budget and shop for food and then, with the mahouts, get to hand-feed the elephants. They also work on motor skills by tossing balls with the playful pachyderms and help bathe and care for the affectionate and intelligent gentle giants. “Results from the project showed that the children displayed improved adaptive behavior, sensory processing, postural control, balance and improved social skills, while their parents also reported perceived improvement and satisfaction with the program,” says Roberts. So although this is currently the world’s first and only elephant therapy program for kids with autism, we certainly hope it won’t be the last.

Melissa Klurman
Melissa is an intrepid explorer and award-winning travel journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She covers topics ranging from family travel and Disney to honeymoons and romantic beaches, and everything in between.