Thailand is called the country of white elephants due to the large population of white elephants found within the country. Thailand is officially known as the Kingdom of Thailand and is a unitary state bordered to the south by Malaysia to the east by Cambodia, to the north by Myanmar, and to the west by the Andaman Sea. The nation occupies an estimated landmass of 198,116.7 square miles and is home to 68 million people making it the 21st most populous country in the world.
Identifying White Elephants
White elephants are a rare kind of elephant that have reddish-brown skin that turns pink when it is wet. The elephants are usually mistaken as albino. The Thai people use the term chang samkhan which is loosely translated to mean ‘auspicious elephant’ or ‘white’ regarding purity when referring to the elephants. Once captured from the wild, the elephants are evaluated by royal palace experts who determine whether an elephant is auspicious or not. Once determined to be auspicious the elephants are then assigned a rank using ancient rules that help the royal experts to put the white elephants into one of the four families with mythological forest homes in the Himalayas.
White elephants were regarded to be holy creatures in ancient Thailand and some other countries. Today, white elephants are still used as a symbol of divine and royal power in the country. Ownership of a white elephant symbolizes wealth, success, royalty, political power, wisdom, and prosperity. The King of Thailand keeps a herd of eleven white elephants while General Than Shwe who is considered to be a descendant and heir of Burmese Kings keeps three elephants.
Indian and Thai venerations of white elephants dates back to the 17th century. Historians reference the Siamese-Burmese war in 1563 that broke out when King Chakkraphat, ruler of modern-day Thailand, declined to give some of his kingdom’s white elephants to the Burmese King. The Ayutthayans lost land, and suffered a significant casualty in the resulting war that was called ‘War of the White Elephant.’ Ancient Thai Kings were also known to give elephants to subordinates with whom they were dissatisfied. The gift of a white elephant would typically ruin the recipient due to the cost of maintaining it. In the old Siam Kingdom, declining a white elephant as a gift was frowned upon as it was considered to be discourteous. Rejecting the gift was also considered to be illogical given the reputation that came with owning the majestic animal.
Criticism of White Elephant Ownership
The ownership of white elephants has been subject to criticism despite the Thai royal family’s obsession with rearing the animals. Many have pointed to the high cost of maintenance that is considered uneconomical in a country where a significant portion of the population still lives in poverty. Animal rights activists have also voiced concern over the traumatic movement of white elephants from their natural habitat to Thai conservation centers that are under the Thai royal patronage.