Manipuri ponies under threat despite state conservation policy

  • The modern game of Polo originated from Manipuri’s traditional game of Sagol Kangjei, which is played with Manipuri ponies. Besides being a vital part of the game, the species is also an important part of the region’s culture.
  • The Manipuri pony is under threat as its grazing grounds and natural habitats are being encroached by infrastructure development projects. This is pushing the ponies out of their habitat, making them more susceptible to road accidents and deaths due to plastic consumption.
  • Though the government launched a conservation policy for the ponies in 2016, experts point out that it has not been efficiently implemented on ground, increasing concern for the last remaining population of the species.

“We gave the world the game of polo” reads a big poster at the Mapal Kangjeibung, the Manipuri term for “outer polo ground”. This is the oldest functional polo ground in the world. It is claimed that the modern game of polo originated from the state of Manipur and has its origins in Sagol Kangjei, the traditional state sport with seven players in each team. Modern polo has four players in each team. Every year, the state hosts international polo tournaments for both men‘s and womens teams. Countries come to the tiny state of Manipur to participate not only for the prize money (less than $12,000) but to compete at the world’s oldest polo ground.

In Manipur, polo is mostly played by most locals, which is contrary to elsewhere where the game is played mostly by royals, elite and the military.

The backbone of the game, the Manipuri pony, is one of the country’s five recognised equine breeds. It is one of the purest breeds of equines, famed for its intelligence, surefooted moves, stamina and endurance and is referred to as the only living original polo pony. Manipuri ponies are typically 11–13 hands (1.1-1.3 metres) tall at the withers, with a strong back, well-developed quarters, a robust shoulder and powerful limbs.

Its importance is not only limited to the game; the Manipuri pony is intertwined with the culture and rituals of the valley. Ponies are believed to be the reincarnation of Samadon Ayangba, a mythological flying horse whose wings were chopped off as it went off a path of destruction. Ponies are integral to Lai Haraoba, the traditional festival of rituals and dance, celebrated annually in honour of Umang Lais, the forest deities. Young boys and girls in traditional dresses would mount ponies during the Lai Haraoba.

Despite its strong roots in the region, the species is currently endangered and faces a myriad of threats, from loss of habitat for grazing to road accidents.

Delayed implementation

In 2016, the Manipur state government passed the Manipur Pony Conservation and Development Policy, acknowledging the decline in the species population, from 1898 as per the 2003 livestock census to 1101 as per the count published in the 2012 census. However, there has not been efficient implementation on ground, says R.K. Nimai, a retired IAS officer, who was actively involved in the policy drafting process. “No steps have been taken to implement the policy, except a short-term effort to herd them in one or two locations and stall feed them,” he commented.

“Only one meeting of the board members has happened till date, after the passing of the policy and 32 acres of low-lying area within Lamphelpat has been earmarked as grazing ground for the ponies,” adds Ningthoukhongjam Bedajeet, Technical Chairman of the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association. “This area of grazing ground may at best cater to 100 ponies for a month.”

A polo match in progress. Photo by Robinson Wahengbam.
A polo match in progress. It is claimed that the modern game of polo originated from the state of Manipur and has its origins in Sagol Kangjei, the traditional state sport. Photo by Robinson Wahengbam.

Besides natural reasons, road accidents and plastic consumption have been the major causes of pony deaths in the last few years. Nimai said, “Due to the increasing stress induced by declining grazing grounds, ponies are often out in the roads and seen scavenging for food from a pile of roadside garbage, which often causes consumption of plastics. This leads to blockages in their intestines and causes death.”

The Press Information Bureau, in a press release on the 2019 Livestock Census, points to a decline of 45.2% of the total population of horses and ponies in India, compared to the previous census in 2012. As per the 2019 census, the present population of horses and ponies, stands at 3.4 lakhs (340,000). According to the latest breed report (based on the livestock census, of the 994 Manipuri ponies in India, 918 are in Manipur.

Need habitat preservation over infrastructure

In January 2023, Union Home Minister Amit Shah inaugurated a 122foot-tall statue of a polo player mounted on a pony at the shrine of Ibudhou Marjing, considered the God of Pony, Polo and War, in Manipur. “This will surely take the legacy forward and inspire more youngsters towards the game,” he posted on the social media platform X. However, making a statue instead of implementing a conservation model has drawn criticism.

“The government has mostly been focussing on infrastructural development rather than preservation of grazing grounds and wetlands. The policy only remains on paper and previous interventions, such as the defunct pony farm at Tingkai Khunou, are the best examples of this systematic failure,” remarks Bedajeet.

Manipur’s Imphal valley was once filled with many wetlands and marshy areas commonly known as pat. Manipuri ponies prefer the kind of habitat with marshy green wetlands, where they graze around and also play. During rainy seasons, when the wetlands are inundated with water, the ponies would migrate to nearby areas, and are thus prone to facing road accidents.

A pony and foal scavenging from a roadside garbage dump. Photo by Robinson Wahengbam.
A pony and foal scavenging from a roadside garbage dump. Photo by Robinson Wahengbam.

The Lamphelpat wetlands, located in the western part of Imphal, was the main and the last resort for the Manipuri pony. Now, however, major areas of the wetlands are encroached upon by government infrastructure. The latest project implemented by the Water Resource Department to dig Lamphelpat into a 12 feet deep waterbody seems to be the final nail in the coffin. This project, spanning over 300 acres, has pushed the ponies out of their natural habitat and has drawn concern from experts and citizens.

“The ongoing dredging work in Lamphelpat is very deadly for ponies. More than 10 ponies have died since the start of the project as ponies get stuck in the mud pool,” said Kh Habe, the former captain of the Manipuri women’s polo team. “This project is killing more ponies than road accidents and plastic consumption.”

Moreover, the ongoing dredging work has drawn apprehensions from nearby establishments including the National Institute of Technology and Shija Hospital, as it could submerge the campus located near the wetlands. The sludge from the excavation work has already made its way to the 32-acre land earmarked for the ponies.

Ponies in their natural habitat in Lamphelpat during the monsoon. Photo by Robinson Wahengbam.
Ponies in their natural habitat in Lamphelpat during the monsoon. Dredging work at Lamphelpat is a threat to the ponies. Photo by Robinson Wahengbam.

At present, there are plans to shift the semi-feral ponies in this region to the campus of the Manipur Pony Breeding Farm and elsewhere, alienating them further from their natural habitat and also making them more susceptible to road accidents and scavenging.

“Local grass such as tingoi and hoop are the main fodder but now there are effectively no more areas to find them for grazing after Lamphelpat was made out of bounds,” adds Habe. At the breeding farm, hay-straw has been arranged as fodder, but the ponies are not really fond of it.  “Hoping for the government’s intervention is the same as beating a dead horse,” laments Habe.


Banner image: Tending saddled polo ponies in between game breaks. Photo by Robinson Wahengbam.

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