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Nepal hopes elephant soccer will boost tourism

PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

As part of a three-day elephant festival in Chitwan, four teams of pachyderms played soccer. They trained for weeks for the games, which are geared toward attracting foreign visitors.

CHITWAN, Nepal - Soccer-playing elephants used all four feet and even their trunks trying to score goals. Racing pachyderm thundered to the finish line to the cheers of the crowds. And in the elephant beauty pageant, contestants sported nail polish on their not-so-dainty toes.

It was all part of an elephant-themed festival in Nepal that wrapped up yesterday. The three-day event was held to promote conservation awareness and lure visitors to Nepal.

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The elephants were trained for weeks for the games, taking time off their normal jobs carrying tourists through protected jungles near Chitwan.

The conservation forest has rhinos, several species of deer, and crocodiles, and it is a popular tourist spot some 106 miles south of the capital, Katmandu.

“We hope that the elephant festival will help bring more tourists to Chitwan. We need both foreign and domestic visitors,’’ said Ghanashyam Shrestha, one of the organizers.

Tourism is picking up in Nepal as it slowly recovers from a 10-year Maoist insurgency that killed more than 13,000 people. The conflict ended after the rebels joined a peace process in 2006.

But the tourists who mainly come to hike the Himalayan country’s mountains aren’t returning fast enough for some. Nepal received some 600,000 visitors in 2010, short of the goal of 1 million set by the government.

Organizers of events like the elephant festival - which draws on a popular elephant polo event held elsewhere in Nepal - hope more colorful events will increase interest in tourism.

The final event, a 300-meter race, was won by an elephant named Bajadur Gaj, who pounded his way to the finish line in 69 seconds as thousands of locals and foreign tourists cheered.

Teams of four elephants also played soccer matches using a standard-size ball.

The elephants blocked passes, kicked the ball, and batted it with their trunks, pushing each other for control of the play.

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