Man’s Biggest Friend

An elephant and mahout doing relief work after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, January 2005
Chris Stremme
An elephant and mahout doing relief work after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, January 2005

In January 1962, on my sixth birthday, I was taken to Melbourne Zoo, where I rode an elephant. We children climbed a scaffold and perched on rough wooden benches atop the elephant’s back, where my fingers furtively reached for a feel of its wrinkled skin. A few months later, elephant rides were discontinued, for safety reasons, at most zoos in Australia, Europe, and the US. I was dimly aware of the danger involved in mounting such an enormous beast, and the hooked ankus, or elephant goad, held by the mahout alerted me to the possibility that the creature led a miserable life. Yet I am grateful for the experience, since it sparked a respect for and love of elephants that has persisted all my life.

The Asian elephant is the second-largest land mammal on earth. Highly intelligent, immensely powerful, and with life spans as long as humans’, they have forged a unique relationship with us. Jacob Shell is a geographer whose new book, Giants of the Monsoon Forest, posits a novel and challenging view of this association. While acknowledging that elephants can suffer at human hands, Shell believes that the relationship has helped both Asian elephants and the humans who work with them to survive in the modern world.

The origins of the elephant–human relationship date back into prehistory. Today’s Asian elephants inhabit the dense monsoon forests of South Asia, where populations persist in forest “islands” that are often separated from one another by populous farmlands and cities. Yet the molar teeth of the Asian elephant indicate that forest is not its preferred habitat. Their grinding surfaces are composed of a series of intricate enamel folds that are adapted to the chewing of grass rather than leaves, suggesting that the Asian elephant evolved in grassland. Even in historic times it lived across a vast area of grassland and open forest from Syria in the west to China in the east. Its retreat into the fastness of the monsoon forests seems to have commenced about the time that the great kingdoms of Asia were established, when agriculture and the rise of cities allowed the human populations of Asia to swell, the ever more intense use of the land leaving no safe refuge for elephants in the grassy lowlands.

The people who first forged a relationship with the elephants, and whose descendants constitute the majority of the mahouts and others currently involved in elephant work, share a similar history. They fled into the monsoon forests following losses in conflicts with the kingdoms that won control of the plains. With humans and elephants finding themselves in what to both is a marginal environment,…

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