Endangered legacy: Manipur’s original polo ponies race against uncertain future

 Manipur’s iconic Polo Ponies are on the brink of extinction, with only 1,089 remaining after 129 died in the last 16 years, the recent Livestock Census conducted by the Manipur Government revealed.

Since the declaration of ponies as an endangered species in 2013, the numbers have plummeted from around 1,218 in 2007 to the current 1089, as per the Livestock Census that was conducted at the end of last year.

Despite concerted efforts by the state government to conserve these iconic animals, the population continues to dwindle due to various reasons, posing a grave challenge for the struggling Polo Pony owners.

The Polo Pony, a diminutive yet robust breed, holds special significance as the backbone of the modern sport of Polo, originating right here in Manipur.

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

Thangjam Basanta, a proud owner of 15 Polo Ponies, laments 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,” says Basanta, an avid polo player himself.

Though polo is a rich man’s sport elsewhere in the country, in Manipur, it is predominantly played by commoners, often from economically-challenged backgrounds.

Most Polo 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 the sport and the Polo Pony culture in Manipur,” emphasises Sarangthem Abung, a pony owner from Imphal West District, stressing the importance of government incentives for pony owners.

The iconic Hapta Kangjeibung, one of the world’s oldest polo courses and practice grounds, has been inaccessible to polo players since 2011, after it was converted into a fair ground and used for political meetings.

Basanta and Abung advocate for its restoration as a practice ground to rejuvenate the diminishing polo culture.

Laisangbam Tomba of Moirang is contemplating 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 faced by owners as they struggle to raise money for the treatment, fodder, and stable maintenance of their trusty steeds.

Doren Singh, a skilled polo player and owner of 13 ponies, asserts that any conservation policy must address the dearth of grazing and polo practice grounds. He calls for government incentives for individual pony owners, akin to those provided to polo clubs.

There are around 26 Polo Clubs in Manipur. One of them, the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association, established in 2005 with 34 ponies, also functions as a stud farm for ponies.

Though the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association appreciates the government’s allocation of 32 acres of land to it for development as a grazing ground at Lamphelpat in 2022, its Secretary, Kongbrailatpam Dhanachandra Sharma stresses the need for more areas to be declared as pony reserves for grazing grounds.

The Pony farm had 152 ponies as of July 2023 and is being run by funds from individual members and fee incentives from the government.

Dr RK Khogendra Singh, Joint director, Directorate of Veterinary and Animal Husbandry, Government of Manipur attributes the decline of Polo Ponies to their underutilisation.

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 Polo Ponies.

To uplift the status of Polo Ponies, the Manipur Government introduced the Manipur Pony Conservation and Development Policy in 2016, offering incentives to polo clubs.

Dr RK Khogendra Singh emphasises that awareness, starting from the grassroots levels, is imperative for pony conservation.

“Preserving the Manipuri Pony is not solely the obligation of the department, it is a collective responsibility. Comprehensive awareness needs to be instilled from the grassroots level by incorporating the pony’s narrative into the school curriculum,” asserted the Joint Director.

He said that the department’s role primarily involves providing medical care, engaging in breeding activities to augment the population.

The official clarified that the department bears no responsibility for animals succumbing to injuries on the roads as this falls squarely on the municipality and the respective owners.

The 20th Livestock Census recently conducted by the Veterinary Department painted a disheartening picture.

Dr Singh expressed his dismay, citing the district-wise break-up of pony numbers: Imphal West district has 619 ponies followed by Imphal East 266, Bishnupur district has 97, Tamenglong 75 and remaining in other districts.

According to the livestock census in 2007, the district-wise pony numbers were: Imphal West district 302 ponies followed by Thoubal district 280, Senapati 229, Bishnupur 115, Churachandpur 85, Chandel 64, Tamenglong 54, Ukhrul 54 and Imphal East district 35.

At that time, the overall count of ponies in the state was 1218.

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

He 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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