white elephant myanmar
March 2, 2015

Rare white elephant discovered in Myanmar

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - @BednarChuck

Officials in Myanmar reported on Sunday that they have located and captured a rare white elephant in the jungles of the western Ayeyarwaddy region, making it just the ninth member of its species to have been discovered in the country also known as Burma.

Forestry official Tun Tun Oo told the Associated Press that the elephant is a seven-year-old female that was captured by his department on Friday, six weeks after it was first spotted living in a reserve in Pathein township.

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Oo added that they “had to be careful” in capturing the “wild” creature because they didn’t want either it or the forestry officials to get hurt in the process. The elephant is about six foot, three inches (190 centimeters) tall and has “pearl color eyes,” according to the AFP.

Symbols of royal power

The AP explained that white elephants, which are actually albinos, have long been revered in Myanmar, Laos and other Asian countries. They are typically pinkish in color and previously were kept and cared for by monarchs as “a symbol of royal power and prosperity.” Even today, many people continue to believe that they are symbols of good luck, the wire service said.

“Previous white elephants transported from Myanmar's jungles have been heralded in lavish ceremonies in which military leaders sprinkle them with scented water laced with gold, silver and precious gems,” the Daily Mail said. “And in the 16th century Thailand... and Burma even went to war over the disputed ownership of four white elephants.”

Chang samkhan

Myanmar now has a total of nine white elephants in captivity, including five in the capital’s zoo and three in Rangoon. It was not immediately clear where the new elephant will be housed.

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According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are between 25,600 to 32,750 Asian elephants remaining in the wild. Only males carry tusks and are thus targeted by poachers for their ivory, which continues to be a threat to the population on these pachyderms. Burma, India and Vietnam have banned the capture of wild elephants for domestic use to protect wild populations.

In Thailand, white elephants are officially known as ‘chang samkhan’ or ‘auspicious elephants,’ and only experts in the royal palace can determine what qualifies as an auspicious elephant and then assign it a rank, according to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. White elephants are placed into one of four families using “ancient and arcane rules,” and are then given heirarchical ranks using seven different basic criteria, the organization added.

Myanmar, which the AFP says has been “ruled by a quasi-civilian government” over the past four years, is currently preparing for a new general election. Prior to the last set of elections, held in 2010, the discovery of a white elephant was hailed by state media outlets as an indication of a successful “democratic transition,” despite allegations of fraud and criticism of the polls.

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“The country’s long-feared army is also currently enjoying a rare public relations boost as it battles ethnic Chinese rebels in the northeastern borderlands,” the news organization added. “The fighting has been framed by state media as a defense of sovereignty, but it has also intensified doubts over government efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire deal.”

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