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The White Elephant

January 29, 2015


Several years ago, the Thai General Manager of our joint Vietnam oil exploration venture named the first two exploration wells “dark horse” and “white elephant” in Vietnamese. When I was told the meaning in English, I knew those wells were doomed, as indeed they were. Fortunately, a “white rhino” well proved successful and enables us to fund The Elephant Story.

A white elephant in western parlance is defined as a possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost, particularly that of maintenance, is out of proportion to it usefulness. Ancient Kings of Siam, now Thailand, used to give them to obnoxious courtiers in order to ruin the recipient. Nonetheless, they remain sacred animals in modern day Thailand and were present on the original flag of Siam.

The photo below shows the color of a normal elephant. The elephant hair will vary in color from pitch black to brown, grey or even white as they age. My favorite elephant, Naam Fon (rain water) is even showing some white at the youthful age of fourteen. Periodically, the hair is trimmed by the mahout owners and made into bracelets, rumored to protect the wearers from black magic. Hair coloring is not an established practice in elephant beauty saloons. White elephants are actually albino by skin pigmentation and when determined “white” by a special committee are donated to the King of Thailand for his protection.

The highest award of the Kingdom of Thailand to a non-member of the Royal Family is the Knight Commander Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant as shown below. It was created in 1869 by the King of Siam to be awarded to distinguished military and civilians. The most prestigious expatriate recipient was the Earl Mountbatten of Burma. It is highly prized by British medal collectors as evidenced by the prices on dealer websites.

The original white elephant flag of Siam, various elephant hair bracelets and the Knight Commander Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant medal can be seen in The Elephant Story in Comfort, Texas.