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Soccer-playing elephants used all four feet and even their trunks trying to score goals. Racing pachyderms 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 Wednesday. The three-day event was held to promote conservation awareness and lure foreign visitors to Nepal.
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 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.
Teaching elephants soccer
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 gave up their armed revolt and joined a peace process in 2006.
But the tourists who mainly come to hike the Himalayan country's many 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 declaring the Nepal Tourism Year.
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.
"Training the elephants to play soccer was not easy but they learned the basic command. They understood they need to hit the ball when I yell 'kick' at them," said Basudev Mahato, 37, an elephant mahout who has been training and riding elephants for 15 years.
The elephants are between 4 and 5 years old. Young ones are easier to train and run faster, Mahato said.
At the Hattishar elephant camp, trainers and workers cleaned up the elephants, fed them a special meal of rice and sugar wrapped in grass and painted them to prepare them for the event.
Over at the beauty pageant, a trainer painted white patterns on an elephant named Loktantrakali, then varnished her toenails bright red.
Judges — who checked contestants bodies' for scars and overall beauty and also watched them perform tricks — picked Loktantrakali as the second-prize winner.