Friday, September 21, 2007


The modern Royal White Elephants of Thailand have been in the care of Dr. Diskul, the royal veterinary surgeon. With His Majesty the King's permission (which must be secured in all matters relating to these venerable creatures), Dr. Diskul has worked to modernize the treatment of the white elephants while still keeping the elevated status traditions. He included reforms in elephant exercise, sterner discipline, revision of medical procedures and dietary improvements.

Elephants, especially if excessively protected like a Royal white elephant, are remarkably delicate in health. Even working elephants are given an upcountry holiday because they get sunstroke in the summer. Years ago, when a white elephant fell sick, treatments had first to be tested on other animals. The delay often aggravated the condition and prolonged the creature's distress. But nowadays, cure is readily available. The stables, two of which were recently constructed at a cost of 3.9-million baht, are kept pretty isolated as a health precaution.

Modern white elephants -- with the exception of Phra Savet Adulyadej Pahon (the King’s favorite, pictured above) -- are ridden by their mahouts and gently disciplined when they misbehave. But still the best incentive to good conduct is rewards. Each elephant has two mahouts, one of whom is often many kilometers away in Samut Phrakan province gathering choice grasses. An elephant may consume over 300-kg of grass, 30-kg of bananas and up to 6-kg of sugar cane a day. Coconuts are a special treat.

Dietary supplements are equally epic. An experiment with feeding bananas spiked with a couple of vitamin and iron pills worked only once. The elephants became aware of it and they promptly rejected -- with remarkable precision -- all other tampered fruits. Unfortunately, the alternative is an annual encounter with a syringe of truly elephantine proportions. On that black day, Dr. Diskul is treated as an "uncertain friend", and the white elephants are quick to trumpet news of his prickly antics.

Not all innovations at the royal stables have worked --this includes the highly regarded giant herbal energy pills from Burma which proved too effective by half. Purchase of a tranquilizer gun costing 100,000 Baht was meanwhile vetoed at the highest level as an unnecessary extravagance.

While it would clearly be improper to ask the actual cost of maintaining a white elephant, retaining such stables in the heart of modern Bangkok is not an easy task. A few years ago, there was a serious consideration to move the royal elephants to a 200-acre site near Phuping Palace in Chiang Mai. Although moving the white elephants away from the capital would certainly raise eyebrows among traditionalists, practicality is still under consideration. The white elephants, accustomed to their safe and regal Bangkok environment, are simply unsuited to wilder climates.

A white elephant is after all, by definition -- not a jungle-dweller.


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