Endangered heritage: The precarious future of Manipur’s original polo ponies

Guwahati: In a distressing revelation, reports from the livestock census conducted by the Manipur government disclosed a disheartening statistic, 129 polo ponies have succumbed in the past 16 years, leaving only 1,089 of the original breeds in the state. 

Despite concerted efforts by the state government to conserve these iconic animals, the population continues to dwindle, posing grave challenges for the struggling pony owners.

The polo pony, a diminutive yet robust breed, holds special significance as the backbone of the modern sport of polo, originating in Manipur. 

Ironically, the ponies that are a source of pride for the locals are inching towards extinction, with an annual decline of at least eight ponies according to the livestock census data.

Thangjam Basanta, an avid polo player and owner of 15 polo ponies, lamented the rapid decline, attributing it to a multitude of factors, with the diminishing grazing grounds being the most critical. 

“Where should one feed the ponies? There are no grazing grounds left as they are encroached upon by humans for so-called developmental projects,” said Basanta.

Contrary to the perception of polo being a rich man’s sport elsewhere, in Manipur, it is predominantly played by commoners, often from economically challenged backgrounds. Most pony owners face substantial financial burdens, exacerbated by the absence of government schemes to aid in their upkeep.

“Revival of grazing and polo grounds is urgently needed to save polo and the pony culture,” emphasised Sarangthem Abung, a pony owner from Imphal West district, stressing the importance of government incentives for pony owners.

The iconic Hapta Kangjeibung, once a polo race course and practice ground, has been inaccessible to polo players since 2011, converted into a ‘mela’ ground and used for political meetings. Basanta and Abung advocated for its restoration as a practising ground to rejuvenate the diminishing polo culture.

Laisangbam Tomba of Moirang contemplates selling his four ponies to alleviate financial strain, reflecting the harsh reality faced by many owners. The absence of government incentives compounds the financial challenges, covering expenses for treatment, fodder and stable maintenance.

Doren Singh, a skilled polo player and owner of 13 ponies, asserted that any conservation policy must address the dearth of grazing and polo practice grounds. He called for government incentives for individual pony owners, akin to those provided to polo clubs. There are around 26 polo clubs in the state.

The Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association, established in 2005 with 34 ponies also functioning as a breeding farm for ponies, appreciated the government’s allocation of 32 acres of land to the association to be developed as grazing grounds at Lamphelpat in 2022. 

However, Kongbrailatpam Dhanachandra Sharma, Secretary of the association, stressed the need for more areas to be declared as pony reserves for grazing grounds. 

The Pony Farm has 152 Ponies as of July 2023 and is being run by funds from individual members and fee incentives from the government.

Since the declaration of ponies as an endangered species in 2013, the numbers have plummeted from around 1,000 in 2007 to 1,089, as per the recent livestock census. 

Joint director of Manipur’s Directorate of Veterinary and Animal Husbandry, RK Khogendra Singh, attributed the decline to the underutilisation of ponies.

In 2007, the number of ponies in the Tingkai Khunou breeding farm numbered only 13. The Tingkai Khunou, located in Bishnupur district was established during 1985-86 as a pony farm for conserving the ponies. 

To uplift the status of polo ponies, the Manipur government introduced the “Manipur Pony Conservation and Development Policy” in 2016, offering incentives to the polo clubs. Singh emphasised that full awareness, starting from grassroots levels, is imperative for pony conservation.

“Preserving Manipuri pony is not solely the obligation of the department but a collective responsibility. Comprehensive awareness needs to be instilled from the grassroots level by incorporating the pony’s narrative into the school curriculum. The department’s role primarily involves providing medical care, and engaging in breeding activities to augment the population,” asserted Singh.

Singh clarified that the department bears no responsibility for animals succumbing to injuries on roads and these squarely fall on the municipality and the respective owners.

The 20th livestock census recently conducted by the veterinary department revealed disheartening figures. 

Singh expressed his dismay, citing the district-wise breakdown of pony numbers; Bishnupur (97), Chandel (14), Churachandpur (59), Imphal East (266), Imphal West (619), Senapati (4), Tamenglong (75), Thoubal (53) and Ukhrul (2). 

As per source information, the livestock census in 2007 disclosed district-wise pony numbers with Bishnupur (115), Chandel (64), Churachandpur (85), Imphal East (35), Imphal West (302), Senapati (229), Tamenglong (54), Thoubal (280) and Ukhrul (54). At that time, the overall count of ponies in the state amounted to 1,218.

Despite the efforts of the Manipur police proposing a mounted unit in every police station to increase pony numbers, progress has been hindered due to the prevailing situation in Manipur, stated Inspector General of Police (IGP), administration, K Jayenta Singh. 

IGP Singh added that the proposal envisions utilising “Sagol Police” for law enforcement activities, emphasising the multifaceted benefits of these equine allies.

As Manipur’s original polo ponies teeter on the brink of extinction, the urgency to address the challenges faced by individual pony owners and revive grazing and polo grounds becomes paramount for the preservation of this cultural and sporting heritage.

Among the northeastern states, Manipur stands as the only state possessing its distinct and pure horse breed. The Manipuri pony is acknowledged as one of the five indigenous equine breeds in India, alongside Marwari, Kathiawari, Zanskari and Spiti.

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