AYUTTHAYA, Thailand – Soccer fans in Thailand watched on Tuesday a World Cup-themed elephant soccer event at a school north of Bangkok, as football fever begins to grip the Southeast Asian nation with the tournament just days away.
At Ayutthaya Wittayalai School, about an hour outside Bangkok, students and visitors were treated to a mock World Cup game featuring student soccer players and trained elephants.
With mahouts riding on their backs, elephants “representing” several nations’ that will appear at the World Cup in Russia, which kicks off on Thursday, took on the school players, winning the match 2-1.
The elephants played against the students by kicking the ball with impressive dexterity, and carrying it with their trunks as they bore down on the goal, giving them somewhat of an unfair advantage against their smaller, bipedal opponents.
Flags of the teams that will feature in Russia, such as Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Japan and France were drawn on the elephants with watercolor paint safe for animals.
The event, which lasted from around 9:00-11:00 am, also featured a penalty shootout, and was preceded by a parade and marching band attended by school pupils as well as foreign visitors.
The nine elephants were from the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal, and ranged from four to 20 years of age – two of them female and seven males.
The event was reportedly held both to promote the upcoming World Cup, which runs from June 14-July 15, as well as to promote tourism in Ayutthaya, a former royal capital.
Although the elephants appeared to be in decent spirits, there are widespread objections to the mammals being trained and used in captivity for entertainment in the Southeast Asian country.
The government in 1998 established a National Elephant Day to recognize the animal – Thailand’s national symbol – and to raise awareness of the challenges the wild pachyderm population faces, though wildlife advocates say the creatures deserve more protection and respect than they receive.
The population of wild elephants in Thailand has dwindled from 300,000 a hundred years ago to around 3,000 today.
“These gentle giants, while revered in the country, are not free from abuse,” according to the nonprofit Save Elephant Foundation.
The NGO runs programs to rescue and rehabilitate elephants from the tourist and illegal logging industries, which the NGO says use inhumane training practices, including torturing baby elephants, to create obedience in naturally wild creatures.