Bringing a white to light
With the spotting of a white elephant in Yala arousing interest, Dr. Lakshman Ranasinghe explains the causes for this unusual condition
The term 'white elephant' has literal connotations as well as figurative meanings. It is documented that Queen Mahamaya of the Sakya clan of North India, in the sixth century, BC, had a dream in which a white elephant entered her womb while she conceived a child, who was named Siddhartha Gautama who subsequently became the Buddha.

The phrase 'white elephant' entered the English language very much later. The dictionary defines it as: '1. a rare variety of the Indian elephant, regarded as sacred in parts of South Asia. 2. a possession that is unwanted by its owner. 3. a rare or valuable possession, the upkeep of which is expensive'.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains that a 'white elephant' is a possession that is of little use, and which is costly to maintain, and, alludes to the story that a King of Siam used to make a present of a white elephant to courtiers he wished to ruin.

The dark colour of the skin in mammals is due to the brown-black pigment melanin. Throughout history, loss of skin colour (depigmentation) has been recorded in several mammals. Even the pet dog might lose pigment, particularly on its nose. There are several causes of loss of pigment in the human skin and these have been recognized and often treated successfully with the advance of medical knowledge.

In the Nile valley of Egypt, the chemical extract of a plant has been used during the past 5,000 years, and was popular among dermatologists in India and Sri Lanka to repigment depigmented human skin. This was called meladinin. In Ayurveda, too, many herbs and therapies have been used for the treatment of depigmentation.

In modern dermatology, newer chemicals are used, and all these are called psoralens. Leucoderma (skin depigmentation) is a common and worrying disorder. One form of depigmentation is called Vitiligo (sudu kabara), which has a prevalence of about three percent among Sri Lankans.

Albinism is a more rare condition, which is inherited from either or both parents. When there is loss of pigment throughout the body in this condition, it is called total albinism. The skin of a person suffering from total albinism is white but appears slightly pinkish due to the blood circulation; the hair and nails are white, the black centre (pupil) of the eye turns red and the central coloured ring of the eye (iris) is light grey.

The animal that is now recognized as the most prone to depigmentation in later and adult life is the elephant. Here the common observation is whitish pink mottling of the trunk (especially the front), forehead and ears. This was rare in wild elephants some decades ago, as can be observed (and verified) in black and white photographs of the past. In this condition, the predilection for pinkish white mottling is in areas of skin that are easily rubbed (as against tree trunks) or traumatized (by the elephant goad). It is evident that today sudu kabara is increasingly prevalent in elephants and humans.

On July 24 and 25, Sri Lankan newspapers reported the spotting of a white (albino) elephant in Yala National Park. Although this is the first time that this has received wide publicity, Dr. Prithiviraj Fernando had observed this animal as a newborn in Heenwewa in 1993. In 1996 the same animal had been photographed in water by a group of enthusiasts.

This she elephant, now about 11 years old, has reached reproductive age. There are about 17 animals in the herd, consisting of adult females and young animals. It is likely that the white elephant's mother is among them, because in matriarchal elephant communities, the mother takes special responsibility when her newborn (offspring) is "different". It is not certain whether elephants (which have poor vision in any case) are colour-blind. Therefore, the albino is unlikely to be treated as "different". To my knowledge, total albinism has not been reported among African elephants.

The Centre for Conservation and Research, Wild Life Department Director Dayananda Kariyawasam and National Zoological Gardens Director H.A.N.T. Perera need to be particularly complimented for their unanimous endorsement that our precious albino should remain with the herd while being carefully observed and protected.

On a trip to Burma in April this year, I visited an open pavilion, merely 5 minutes from the International Airport in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma), where three white elephants (including two females and one male, - a tusker) were housed and exhibited. Photography was prohibited. The females (aged 26 and five years) were from Maungtaw, Rakhine State (very close to the Bangladesh border). The male (aged 10) was from nearby Rathedaung, Rakhine state. The common special feature among all three was the white skin, hair and nails, pearly eyes, and, ears larger than others of the same species of Indian elephants.

It is possible that the 26-year-old albino was a result of genetic mutation, a condition that results from the alteration of the gene that produces skin pigmentation to one that does not, and that the two younger animals were her offspring. If we accept this explanation, the 10-year old male was probably compelled to leave the herd after adolescence, because males do not remain within the matriarchal herd. This is in contrast to the traditional Sri Lankan human mother who would love to keep her son - for all time, if possible!

In the case of the Yala albino, it is reasonable to conclude that it has been a gene mutation - for the first time among Sri Lankan elephants.
(The writer is a Consultant Dermatologist)

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