Found: a holy white elephant

To the untrained eye, it's just a bit on the pale side. To scientists and Buddhists, it's a miracle. Jan McGirk goes in search of the world's rarest, most valuable pachyderm
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The Independent Online

White elephants are seen once in a blue moon. So it seems apt that such a fabled creature was sighted in southern Sri Lanka last month during precisely such a rare lunar event (when a second full moon appears in a single month). And after government scientists confirmed that the fair-skinned elephant with a herd in the forests near Yala national park could be classified as a true albino, the fanfare that resulted made any fuss over the moon pale by comparison.

White elephants are seen once in a blue moon. So it seems apt that such a fabled creature was sighted in southern Sri Lanka last month during precisely such a rare lunar event (when a second full moon appears in a single month). And after government scientists confirmed that the fair-skinned elephant with a herd in the forests near Yala national park could be classified as a true albino, the fanfare that resulted made any fuss over the moon pale by comparison.

The scientists claimed this was the world's first, scientifically certified sighting of a white elephant in the wild, and the news was flashed around the globe. Sue, as the forest rangers call her, is among a social grouping of 17 pachyderms. Her rather ordinary-sounding new name means "White" in Sinhalese. Vijitha Berera, a veterinarian from Sri Lanka's department of wildlife conservation, says the elephant is "a new national treasure", and adds: "We hope she might be pregnant." But Sue appears to be only 11 years old, and unlikely to reach sexual maturity until she is 15.

Sri Lankan wildlife researchers are busy gathering clumps of her dung to determine which genetic mutation caused her albinism. But merely collecting the droppings and keeping one's distance is not the usual treatment accorded to white elephants in this part of Asia. Wherever Theravada Buddhism is practised, from upper Burma to the southern reaches of Thailand and Vietnam, the discovery of a white elephant - usually born into a domesticated herd - is hailed as a portentous omen, connected to fertility.

Buddhists believe that a holy white elephant with six tusks appeared in a dream to present a lotus, a symbol of purity and knowledge, to Queen Mahamaya, as she conceived Prince Siddhartha, who later was recognised as the Lord Buddha.

Close up, a white elephant resembles a dishwater blonde with freckled nose. Yet these creatures are venerated as symbols of strength, purity and divinity. When one is discovered, the traditional response is to summon a priest to quantify each sacred elephantine attribute, from the size of its tail-brush to the pearly tone of its toenails, and to determine whether the animal can be deemed a "significant elephant" with a good bloodline, or merely "peculiar". Those that pass the test will become cosseted inmates of a Buddhist temple.

In Thailand, the process is taken a step further. After a white elephant is identified, it automatically becomes the property of the king. Its status is certified by examiners from the Bureau of the Royal Household, whose task can be likened to that of the proverbial blind sages who blundered when they described an elephant because they did not consider the sum of his parts. But they do know their pachyderms, in Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is also known as King Rama IX, owns at least 10 white elephants and has half a dozen spare ones which have not yet undergone the elaborate "exaltation" process by which these creatures are accorded pampered, demigod status.

This involves the beast garlanded with a palm leaf necklace, and serenaded by a singer, a fiddler, and a drummer as they would at a royal coronation. To ward off possible misfortune, an albino monkey and a white crow are sometimes raised alongside the elephant, even if their antics might prove troublesome for a mahout, or elephant trainer.

Officials in Yala are determined that there will be no attempts to subject Sue to such treatment. She will not spend her days chained at a high temple as a symbol of divine power. The official line is that, "No attempt should be made to tranquillise or capture her". Gawkers and amateur photographers, have been specifically asked not to stalk the underbrush in hopes of a candid snap. But she is already a big draw at the game park.

Prithiviraj Fernando, a conservationist who claims he spotted Sue as a new-born albino calf in 1993, but had no corroborating witnesses, says her elephant herd seems wary of humans and venture to water holes only at night.

Mary Pearl, who heads the New York-based Wildlife Trust, which sponsors research on the island, says she hopes Sue's appearance "will help reinvigorate the reverence elephants have traditionally enjoyed in Sri Lanka". Rangers say three Sri Lankan elephants are shot every week because they stray into cultivated fields or trample village huts. Such encroachment is a problem all over Asia. Ms Pearl says that as elephant numbers decline and inbreeding becomes more common, genetic glitches are to be expected. "So we may see more white elephants".

In Thailand, the desire to find a perfect white elephant has spawned an cloning project that is as ambitious as something out of the film Jurassic Park. For five years, Thai scientists at Mahidol University in Bangkok have been trying to clone the most magnificent pale elephant to grace the royal menagerie, using its 170-year-old pickled remains.

"If possible, we scientists hope to clone this elephant since it is the best one found in the country," Chisanu Tiyscharoensri, of the university's research and development centre, said at the start of the project. The animal belonged to King Rama III, who ruled Thailand from 1824 to 1851. Huge glass jars, stuffed with sizeable chunks of cream-coloured skin preserved in alcohol, take pride of place in Bangkok's Royal Elephant Museum today. Alongside are golden tassels fashioned from elephant bristles, plus the ivory tusks of former palace elephants, which are each more than 6ft long. It seems more like a saint's reliquary than a natural history exhibit. Might cloning be considered a sacrilege?

The Mahidol scientists claim already to have cloned a cow, and say they draw their inspiration from a controversial Japanese project to clone a woolly mammoth from frozen samples. But experts say reconstructing a cell from preserved DNA has never been achieved. Since alcohol is likely to degrade any genetic material required, the probability of success is low. That does not seem to faze the research team much, although five years into the project, which aimed to reproduce the ideal royal elephant by 2009, they seem rather more publicity-shy than during its high-profile launch.

White elephants, long considered to be the ultimate war machines, combined the might of a tank with the mysticism of, say, a white unicorn stallion. Collecting an impressive array of such creatures allowed the region's kings to accrue symbolic power.

In the 19th century, the last Burmese king, Thibaw, loaded his favourite white elephant with treasures, including diamonds inset in its tusks, although the beast was dying. After it passed away, shaded by four gold umbrellas, the royal soothsayers predicted natural disasters. The British invaded and deposed the king. During the 1960s, the last Cambodian white elephant was photographed in the royal palace, but the pachyderm disappeared during the murderous years of the Pol Pot era.

But at the royal palace in Bangkok, lavish stables still stand ready to receive royal visitors on elaborately caparisoned elephants. For 99 years, the flag of Siam bore the image of a white elephant. Even now, the welfare of any royal white elephant is considered paramount, and Thailand's Department of the Elephant Keeper is a busy bureaucracy. Should a white elephant fall ill, chip a tusk or fall, it is considered a bad omen and dire consequences for the kingdom are meant to follow.

The sanctified creatures are isolated in immaculate stables, and fed lavish trays of ripe fruit and veg. An elephant will consume at least 300kg of food per day, although the Thai white elephants are said to spurn any that has touched the ground.

Well-tended white elephants augur a long and prosperous reign. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, with his phalanx of sacred albinos stabled in luxury, has ruled peacefully since 1959. Thai legend has it that all elephants started out as gravity-defying white creatures who flew like cumulus clouds. But when one big tusker tried to alight on the upper branches of an enormous old banyan tree, the branch snapped under its bulk, and the body of the flighty elephant was dumped on to a hermit meditating under the tree. The bruised yogi lost his temper and cursed away the animal's wings.

Ever since, legend goes, elephants have had to plod as beasts of burden. But even without wings, South-east Asia's white elephants still enjoy mythical status.


Traditional Thai texts specify that a royal white elephant should have the following attributes: (1) Pearl-coloured eyes, with the corneas tinged white, yellow or pink; (2) Smooth roof of the mouth, coloured white or pink, and without ridges; (3) Pale toenails, naturally white or pink; (4) Blond body hairs, translucent in sunlight. Two or more bristles growing out of one follicle is particularly auspicious; (5) Skin-tone white, pink, pale dun, or pallid grey; (6) Long tail, with bristles close to the ground; (7) Genitals either white or pink; (8) The creature should emit "a beautiful snore".

Pope Leo X became so fond of Hanno, a white elephant presented to him in Rome by King Manuel I of Portugal, that he wrote a eulogy after the beast died prematurely in 1516.

A Siamese envoy, after an audience with Queen Victoria, marvelled: "Her eyes, complexion, and above all her bearing are those of a beautiful and majestic white elephant."

The publication in 1870 of Anna Harriette Leonowens's The English Governess at the Siamese Court helped popularise the myth that minor Thai officials who offended the royals might be given a white elephant as a comeuppance, because the maintenance costs would be ruinous.

The phrase was further popularised by a gargantuan folly of a hotel built on New York's Coney Island in 1885, which was white and shaped like a pachyderm.

The Burmese believe the skin of a true white elephant, sprinkled with water, will appear tinged red; an ordinary one's skin will simply darken.

Burma's military leaders showed off two white elephants, found in 2002, to impress the Thais and defuse a border spat.