Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working With Elephants
Jacob Shell’s “beautifully written” new book celebrates a unique human-animal relationship, said Nikil Saval in NewYorker.com. For centuries, teak loggers in eastern India and Myanmar have used wild Asian elephants as day laborers: Handlers round up the animals each morning, enlist them in carrying timber, then loosely shackle the creatures’ forelegs and release them into the jungle for the night. Shell, a geography professor, also describes how Asian elephants have been employed as battlefield tanks and peacetime people movers, and he writes “in a lightly antique mode” that’s “somehow appropriate” to a study of vanishing ways of life. But Shell argues that the tradition of elephant servitude should continue. In his mind, it represents the dwindling species’ best hope of escaping extinction.
Not everyone will agree, said Barbara King in NPR.org. The view we’re given of elephant labor proves “at once compelling and disturbing.” Of the world’s remaining 40,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants, roughly 9,000 are workers, and their strength and capacity for solving problems make them invaluable. Shell stresses that work roles increase the odds of the elephants remaining where they’re happiest, but they often suffer injuries during initial capture; they are at times disciplined with bull hooks; and their nightly freedom is barely freedom. Shell offers ideas for improved treatment. Still, “is capture and control of wild elephants really the best model we can devise?”
Shell’s book maps “a moral area as gray as the elephant’s flesh,” said B. David Zarley in PasteMagazine.com. The usual conservationist approach entails setting aside nature preserves and encouraging tourism. But building the hotels and roads that would make such a plan economically feasible “would mean, ironically, an increase in deforestation,” endangering the elephants further. Shell’s proposed solution to the extinction of Asian elephants might be imperfect, but it is at least pragmatic. “By appealing to the most powerful of human motivations—greed—these creatures may yet be saved.” ■