Who needs a horse when you've got an elephant?

At half time, the players sip whiskey. And their mounts guzzle down gallons of fresh lime soda.
It's polo, but not as we know it.

photo - from Alf Erikson Best known as a destination for mountaineering, the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is also the venue for the annual World Elephant Polo Championship.

"It's for fun . . . to give people a chance to do something different," said Carolyn Syangbo of Tiger Tops, an adventure tourism group which organises the contest.

Eight teams from the United States, Britain, India and Nepal competed in the 16th World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) championship in December at Meghauly, 120km southwest of the capital, Kathmandu.

Meghauly is home to several endangered and rare species of wildlife such as the royal bengal tiger and the Asian one-homed rhinoceros.

photo - from Alf Erikson Elephant polo was first played in Jaipur, capital of India's northwestern state of Rajasthan, at opulent ceremonies hosted by Maharajahs. But in those days, it was an ad hoc lark-about rather than a serious contest with rules.

The concept was dreamed up by a Scottish landowner and a British tour operator who met at a bar in Switzerland in 1981.

It is similar to traditional horse polo: two teams of men thunder across a grass pitch on the back of quadrupeds with the aim of whacking a ball into their opponents' goal with a long stick.

In the elephantine version of the game, each player wields a special bat of at least 2m in length to reach the ball and rides with a "driver".

photo - from Alf Erikson The game's organising committee has just decided to reduce the length of the ground to lOOm from the regular horse polo length of 140m and use only three jumbos per side instead of four.

Players say the task of advancing their game as an international sport is a mammoth one.

"It will be pretty much restricted to Nepal because not many countries have elephants," says Alf Leif Erickson, captain of the American Screw Tuskers team of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Even in Nepal there are only about 70 domesticated elephants and about the same number in the wild.

There is also the question of costs, including rental of the animals. Like traditional polo, elephant polo is also something of an elitist sport. Although Nepali villagers turn up in their thousands to watch, it is clearly a domain of the rich and beautiful.

Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal flew into Meghauly last month to hand the winning team, India, their prizes and got a "thank-you kiss" from Miss Nepal, Tharna Bajracharya.

"It is a great honour to be with so many exciting and glamorous people," says Peter Prentice, captain of the Chivas Regal team from Britain. "It is a real treat, and a damn serious game. It is not an elephant circus." Prentice, who played the game for the 11th year in a row in December, remembers with fondness a moment of glory when his team won the 1992 WEPA championship.

"The feeling is just the same as when you are lifting the World Cup football trophy," he says.

More information on elephant polo