|The 2003 white elephant Rati Malar|
Boy, some elephant handler in Myanmar must regret that day in January when he saw a white elephant. The handler told forest officials and eventually the military junta came to look for the animal that has mystical powers in local culture and Buddhism. Now, the Independent reports, the 50 soldiers have conscripted tons of local, forcing them to abandon their families and farms in search of the talisman of prosperity and power.
I wonder if because of this ordeal the Burmese will take the western meaning of “white elephant” as an overly demanding luxury item.
This white elephant is wily in addition to being sacred. It was first sighted in 2008, but no one was able to catch it then, either. White animals can either be leucistic (fur or skin is white, but eyes normal) or albino (white skin, red eyes, and often vision and sunburn problems).
In a previous white elephant situation in 2001, many locals speculated that a white elephant claimed by the junta was really an imposter, a pedestrian grey elephant that had undergone some kind of makeover at “an elephant-shed at Athak-naing-ra village” and renamed appropriately, Naringara News reported. The Independent says that elephant eventually “fell out of favor” along with the government it was supposed to be lucky to. No word on where it went; it’s not like washed up white elephants can just get some low-key gig in the hinterlands.
The other elephants in Burma don’t get nearly the love his white one does. An elephant advocacy group, EleAid says that there are maybe 5,000 wild elephants left in the country and probably more kept in captivity, working in logging, tourism or sacred ceremonies. The IUCN Red List says the Asian elephant is endangered and has a “a wide, but highly fragmented, distribution in Myanmar.” If they catch this white elephant, it will be treated like royalty, with jewels and fancy dishes. Of course, that’s the human idea of fun; the elephant would rather just hang out with its herd.