Elephant beauty pageant contestant

Photos: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

Asian elephants are so much a part of Nepalese culture that those who ride elephants (called mahouts) celebrate the animals with five days of elephant pageants, races — even soccer matches.

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Mahouts riding elephants at sunrise

The Chitwan Elephant Festival aims to raise awareness for the endangered Asian elephant population, which is key to the tourism industry and overall economy in the area.

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Mahout gives an elephant a bath
"As the great Asian elephant, the most intelligent, friendly, beneficial and biggest mammal on Earth is practically at the verge of extinction, we the people of Saurha at the main gateway of Chitwan National Park, want to draw the kind attention of the conscious animal lovers and ecologically conscious intellectuals of the world, about this unhappy situation," the Chitwan Elephant Festival's website reads. "As some 10,000 people of this area are directly dependent on tourism industry and as the elephants are the backbone of this industry, it is also necessary for us to save elephants."
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Elephant race

Elephants, guided by their mahouts, race to the finish line in one of many rounds. The first International Elephant Race took place in 2005, with thousands of tourists in attendance.

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Mahouts and elephants playing soccer

Elephants thunder across a soccer field in a one-of-a-kind sports competition.

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Anna Norris is an associate editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.