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Imphal's vanishing ponies trotternama

In Manipur, the birthplace of polo, the state’s pony population is dwindling owing to smuggling, urbanisation and neglect. Sobhapati Samom writes.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2011 00:12 IST

The pastime of the royals, which originated in India's North-east, is facing extinction in its birthplace. Unless urgent steps are taken to conserve Manipuri polo ponies, this magnificent breed of horses will be on its way to oblivion.

Over the past few years, say sources in the state veterinary and animal husbandry department, the population of the Manipur pony breed has been dwindling. In the last livestock census done in 2007, the number had dropped to 1,037, a steep decline from the figure of 1,893 estimated during the 2003 census.

A Food and Agriculture Organisation publication on the World Watch List on Domestic Animal Diversity has listed the breed as "an endangered animal."

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, 1991, the origins of polo can be traced back to 3100 BC when it was played as Sagol Kangjei (Horse Stick) in Manipur.

Kangjeiroi, an ancient treatise on polo, says the game was introduced to the Manipuris during the reign of king Kangba, centuries before the birth of Christ. It also gives an account of the first recorded polo match between the royal friends of King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba in 33 A.D., believed to have been played at the Mapal Kangjeibung (polo ground) in Imphal. Says veteran journalist N Tombiraj: "The oldest known polo club was the Cachar Club founded in Assam in 1859. The oldest surviving polo club, of course, is the Calcutta Polo Club formed in 1862."

Ponies figure prominently in the Manipuri way of life. Besides traditional events such as the Lai-haraoba (Festival of God) and being used in the sport, they were also utilised as mounts for the Manipur cavalry, which was respected and feared throughout upper Burma during the 17th century. The breed was used in the army throughout World War II as transport animals to take the British army into Burma, now Myanmar, in 1945.

But today, the disappearance of grazing grounds and lack of investment are leading to an alarming decline in the population of ponies. Another reason is smuggling. Myanmar and neighbouring states have a huge demand for the Manipuri pony to be used as 'horse tongas'.

Many pony owners, who earn their livelihood from agriculture and allied activities find the returns from rearing ponies, unlike those from dairy farming, poultry and piggery, less attractive.

Besides routine check-ups, a pony needs a bag of grass every day. Many pony owners are forced to shell out R500 as fine to municipality officials when the animals come out on the streets of Imphal in search of food and are detained.

"Rearing a polo pony is not easy in the state mainly because of the lack of grazing fields," says Naorem Ranjan (31), who plays for the Imphal riding club, besides being the caretaker of a pony farm in Imphal. "The time has come to stop animal smuggling, establishing grazing fields and increasing the prize money of polo tournaments," says Ranjan.

Unfortunately, the government is yet to formulate a long-term plan to arrest the declining population of ponies in the state. The Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA), which has more than a dozen polo clubs affiliated to it, is focusing on conservation of the rare species than exploring utility avenues for these animals. "Besides its historical connections, the Manipur pony is a recognised breed. So, we are focusing more on the conservation aspects," says Ningthoukhongjam Bedajit Singh, chairman of MHRPA's technical committee.

"The government should conserve it seriously, in the manner they've protected the Sangai (cervus eldi eldi), an endangered deer available only in Manipur," adds Singh.

Players such as Laishram Thomson, (19) of Khurai polo club in Imphal west district, believe this is the right approach. "To promote polo, we should encourage the animal's conservation."