© 2012

The White Elephant

This is the first record of a ‘white elephant’ from Sri Lanka, and the only one known to be living free in the wild in the world. All other reported 'white elephants' being captive animals.

The white elephant was originally sighted by us as a new born in 1993. She was observed as an infant in a herd of 12 animals, when they came to drink at a watering place (Heen Wewa in Yala Block I), at dusk (see picture). There was another calf of about the same age in the group and the difference in the two animals was very obvious. Although we spent much time in the park on individual identification, and were on the look out for the group, we were not able to locate her thereafter.
Many people were skeptical about the presence of such an animal. However, in 1996, a group of visitors to the Yala National Park saw her at Diganwala (another water hole in Yala Block I). She was photographed in the water. While all the other animals became pitch black on being immersed, she was very light tan colour and the contrast was breath taking. At this time she was about 4 feet (120 cm) tall. Since the original sighting, we have always been on the look out for the white elephant. We had a couple of sightings of her outside the park in the ensuing years, always limited to fleeting glimpses at dusk - enough to keep our enthusiasm up, but not under suitable conditions for observation or good photographs. Some of the chena farmers outside the Park had also seen her and noticed that she was different to other animals - they called her the "Cheena Aliya" (Chinese elephant) because of her colour.

In 2004, we shifted our focus to working outside the park and monitoring the elephants there, to figure out how many elephants were outside the park and to understand their resource use patterns. Janaka, one of the CCR research assistants, was the main person doing the elephant monitoring. In July 2004 when he was observing a group of elephants coming to a watering place he spotted the white elephant again. At the time they had just come into the fallow chena fields and could be observed well, as the vegetation was sparse.

We managed to track her and keep her under observation for about two weeks during this period. It was a very special experience to see her feeding together with the rest of her group in the fallow chenas. We refer to her as "Sudu Aliya" which means "white elephant". Subsequently, Sudu Aliya and her herd moved into thick scrub and it became more difficult to observe them. In 2004, Sudu Aliya was sighted in a herd of 17 individuals, including two young calves and a number of juveniles. Behaviorally she appears to be completely normal, and does not seem to be having any problems - either with sight or in interactions with other animals.

Although most of the time elephants put earth and dust on their backs, even under such circumstances, the white elephant is very distinctive. However, the contrast is greatest when wet. One day, while we were watching Sudu Aliya, a passing cloud splattered a few drops of rain, and one could immediately see the difference it made on her skin compared to the others. Unfortunately it being the dry season, the rain fizzled out after a few drops. So far we have been unable to get a photograph of her in the water, as her group come to water only after dark. They appear to be very wary of people and move into thick cover on the first indications of human presence, a behavior they probably stick to within the Park also. An elephant moving 5 meters into the thick scrub in the Park becomes practically invisible from the road. This is probably why there have not been many sightings of Sudu Aliya in the park, although her group probably spends the wet season there and the park is visited by thousands of people.

Sudu Aliya is mostly a light tan color with white body hair but has a black tail tuft. Therefore, she is not a complete albino. Albinism used to be classified as complete and incomplete, with oculo-cutaneous albinism being considered complete where there was total absence of the pigment melanin, giving rise to lack of body color and visual problems. However, now it is recognized that there are around six genes that are involved in melanin production and mutations in any of them can give rise to forms of albinism.

White elephants have a very special place in Sri Lankan and eastern cultures and religions. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, there are many references to white elephants. While undoubtedly rare, such animals must have existed in the past also, as they feature prominently in our folklore and mythology. While this is the first record of such an animal in Sri Lanka, 'white elephants' have been reported from the mainland, especially Myanmar and Thailand. However, the definition of a 'white elephant' in these countries is similar to the caste system for elephants in Sri Lanka, where elephants are clustered into a number of groups according to their physical characteristics. Similarly, in Thailand and Myanmar, a 'white elephant' is recognized as having a particular number of toe nails visible, length and shape of tail, lighter body colour and so on, and does not necessarily indicate an albino animal. In Thailand, such 'white elephants' are considered royalty and to belong to the king. In the past, such animals were sometimes gifted to a nobleman by the king, who then had to spend an enormous fortune for the proper upkeep of the animal but was unable to earn any thing from it because such animals could not be put to work. The usage of the term 'white-elephant' to denote an unprofitable venture originates from this practice.

In many eastern cultures, the appearance of a white elephant is considered a very powerful omen of good. Unfortunately, this has always resulted in capture of such animals, the moment they were observed. So while it may signify a blessing to the people, it is quite the opposite for the elephant, having to spend the rest of its life in captivity as a curiosity.

What happened to Sudu Aliya after 2004 …

Story by Prithiviraj Fernando