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Heavy competition rocks Thai elephant polo

The action was hot and heavy — especially heavy — as competition began Thursday in Thailand's King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament, a quirky charity event whose proceeds benefit the beasts who are the games' stars.

A mahout sprays water to an elephant after an elephant polo match in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. The annual King's Cup Elephant Polo charity event raises funds for projects that better the lives of Thailand's wild and domesticated elephant population. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

An elephant is fed by children before an elephant polo match in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The game deviates from standard polo in several aspects, aside from the mounts weighing upward of 2,200 kilograms (5,000 pounds). Two people — the player and a mahout, or trainer, sit astride each elephant. The mallets are about two meters (6.6 feet) long, and women are allowed to use both hands to wield them.

Elephants are fed with fruits before an elephant polo match in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Elephants with mahouts on board are fed with fruits before an elephant polo match in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Elephants are fed with fruits before an elephant polo match in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Elephants are the de facto national animal of Thailand, and for a time even adorned the country's flag. But in the past few decades, they have fallen on hard times, as deforestation has deprived them of a habitat where they can roam wild and led to massive unemployment in logging, the sector where tamed elephants could once earn an honest living.

A polo player sitting behind a mahout chooses a polo mallet during the King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Polo players behind mahouts sit astride each elephants as they vie for the ball during the King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

 

The tournament's organizer, a Thai-owned international hotel chain, say that since the games began in 2001 — originally in the seaside resort city of Hua Hin but now in the capital, Bangkok — they have raised almost $950,000 for projects benefiting Thailand's elephants, "including housing for the mahouts and families, shelters for the elephants and a mobile blood centrifuge and elephant ambulance for the Thai Elephant Conservation Center."

Polo players behind mahouts sit astride each elephants as they play polo during the King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Polo players behind mahouts sit astride each elephants as they move to play polo during the King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Polo players behind mahouts sit astride each elephants as they play during the King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

 

The playing beasts can count on a special treat after each match, sugar cane or a nutritious mix of molasses and rock salt in rice balls, to replace depleted vitamins and minerals.

Polo players behind mahouts sit astride each elephants as they vie for the ball during the King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Polo players behind mahouts sit astride each elephants as they vie for the ball during the King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)