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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 13:48 GMT
In search of the albino elephant
By Tom Parker in Colombo

Sue, the albino elephant
Sue, the albino elephant - a genetic mutation?
It's late afternoon in Yala national park, and Priviraj Fernando, a scientist from Sri Lanka's Centre for Conservation and Research, is carefully attaching movement-sensitive cameras to posts on the park boundary.

"We're hoping to catch the albino elephant on film, many herds come through here at night," Dr Fernando tells me, pointing out the piles of dung and the stripped branches of the acacia plants which they eat.

The 11-year-old female - nicknamed Sue - was recently spotted for the first time in 6 years. It is thought to be the only wild albino elephant in Asia.

"Generally when you see an albino animal you expect it to be white, that is if it has fur.

"Since elephants hardly have any fur you see the skin colour. It's like a very pale tanned colour. So, especially if it is wet, the contrast is absolutely amazing", says Dr Fernando.

Conflict

The dry season is making life difficult for the local farmers, as the animals cross the park boundary and venture into the village areas looking for food and water.

It's obviously a very rare mutation or a very rare gene
Dr Priviraj Fernando
"Most elephants come into conflict with people and because of that most of them develop avoidance behaviour," says Dr Fernando.

"They become almost nocturnal."

This makes observation and research into Yala's elephant population almost impossible.

The crimson sun is setting as we drive to Rotawella tank, a water supply one kilometre into the park where local people come to wash. HK Janaka, one of the park's researchers, saw the albino elephant here last month.

"I stopped my bike and climbed a tree. I saw one elephant coming towards the tank to drink water. Suddenly I saw the white elephant. It was with 19 elephants, all female."

Genetic question

Dr Fernando wants to find out the cause of the elephant's albinism.

"It's obviously a very rare mutation or a very rare gene. Usually genes like albinism are recessive, so even if an animal or a person carries one of those genes it will not be expressed so you wouldn't know unless you did a genetic analysis."

The white elephant has a great significance to Buddhism
Nanasiri
Farmer
In the rare instance an animal receives two recessive albino genes - one from each parent - it will be an albino.

On the other hand, it could be a case of a genetic mutation resulting in a characteristic like albinism always being expressed. If the elephant becomes pregnant its offspring will also be albino.

"Mutations happen because they just happen. That's why you have evolution," says Dr Fernando.

Buddhism

The reappearance of the animal has not just been of interest to scientists.

Sue, the albino elephant
Sue could become a symbol of the need to protect elephants

Albino elephants have played a part in Buddhist mythology.

I went to see Nanasiri, a local farmer who lives in Tissamaharama, a bustling tourist town on the edge of the park.

"The white elephant has a great significance to Buddhism," he says.

"The white elephant is the God Saman's vehicle which he used when he came to Sri Lanka in the Ratnapura area. The Lord Buddha's mother also dreamt of a white elephant before his conception.

"We believe the white elephant only appears once every 12 years and it's seen as an auspicious sign," he says.

Just a curiosity

Not everybody in Yala thinks the white elephant is so important.

A local conservationist Monauree tells me they now need to use the media attention to address the real issues Sri Lanka's 4,000 wild elephants are facing.

"It's an exciting curiosity, but it's also an elephant. It's an elephant with all the other elephants."

She says the conflict with humans and loss of habitat are the major concerns.

"We need to focus on the conservation needs of elephants in general. So I guess [the albino elephant] could be kind of a symbol or a flagship for conservation."


SEE ALSO:
Saving the Asian elephant
19 Sep 03 |  Science/Nature
Pension rights for Indian elephants
24 Jul 03 |  South Asia
Sri Lankans battle with elephants
20 Jun 03 |  South Asia


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