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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, their survival may have relied on cooperation.

Today, between a quarter and a third of all surviving Asian elephants are working elephants that live in intimate association with people, and it is the quality of life experienced by these creatures that will determine for many the acceptability of Shell’s argument. These elephants are often referred to as domesticated, but by virtue of their intelligence, strength, and unusual patterns of reproduction, elephants cannot be controlled as other livestock can be. Instead, they work as somewhat equal partners with their human mahouts while they go about their work in logging, transport, or emergency relief (such as during floods).

Some aspects of the conditions under which working elephants live challenge Shell’s view that the human–elephant relationship is a generally positive one. It often begins with a brutal capture, in which the calf is separated from its family. Then come months of training, during which the captive is tied to a tree in the forest, while a carrot-and-stick approach is used to teach it how to behave. Details of the domestication process vary. Some elephants bear scars on their foreheads from machete blows, but far gentler means are employed in the logging camps of Myanmar, where Shell made most of his observations. There, the three dozen government-run logging villages that deploy elephants use low-impact means in capturing them, including the provision of treats such as rice and salt, and tend to favor tasty treats to win the elephants’ acceptance of their new conditions.

Even after their initial training, working elephants are not entirely free. They will literally spend their lives in chains—which sounds more like slavery than partnership—yet there is huge variation in their degree of autonomy and quality of life. Elephants that live in cities and are used for religious festivals, or are kept in zoos, have far less freedom than those that work in the forest. Forest elephants spend only a third of their lives at work; the rest of the time they wander, feeding and potentially associating with and mating with wild relatives.

Working elephants are released to roam in the forest because the amount of food required to sustain them is prodigious, and it is only by foraging for hours that their needs can be satisfied. In the morning, the mahouts fan out to retrieve their elephants and to reward them with a bath and scrub, which the creatures clearly enjoy and which is an indispensable reward.

Those of us who know Asian elephants only through an occasional visit to a zoo or sanctuary find them inscrutable. But mahouts understand that each elephant is an individual, and the communication between an elephant and its mahout can be deep and complex. This is astonishing, because elephants have not been bred, as have dogs, to be good at responding to human emotions or completing particular tasks. Rather, it seems that evolution has selected for similar capacities of intelligence, compassion, and sociality in both humans and elephants, and it is this coincidence that has allowed these two very different species to forge such close ties.

Shell argues that it was elephants, not humans, that initiated the associations, and that insights into the origins of the bond can be seen in the behavior of wild elephants like Pagli, who lived around fifty years ago in the border area between India and China. Her name means something like “the crazy one” because she left her family and approached a camp where working elephants and their mahouts were constructing a military airstrip on the Indian side of the disputed border.

Pagli refused to participate in work but would help herself to the rice treats left out for the working elephants. Eventually she mated with a working male and became pregnant. When the airstrip was completed, she followed the mahouts and their elephants south to their home in the Manabum hills in Arunachal Pradesh. Despite Pagli’s wildness, the mahouts liked her, and they continued to feed and look after her into her old age. Their generosity was eventually rewarded through her calf, Air Singh (meaning Lord of the Air, in reference to the airstrip where he was conceived), who matured into one of the most capable logging elephants ever known.

Shell watched Air Singh as he loaded a hollong log weighing over a thousand pounds onto a flat-bed truck. The enormous tusker began by pushing the truck, which was hopelessly bogged, onto solid ground. He then built a ramp of smaller logs, which he kept adjusting through the loading process. Much precise maneuvering was required to get the hollong log into place at the base of the ramp, and the loading required precision, calculation, and stupendous strength. What struck Shell about the performance was the way that both the elephant and his mahout contributed to the deliberations required to complete the task.

Some elephants have been known to use tools without any help from their mahouts. One remarkable instance occurred when an elephant was assisting in building a bridge in Burma during World War II. He was asked to lift a log onto a high platform but refused, knowing that the high lift involved a risk of the log rolling back and crushing his mahout. Eventually the elephant put the log down and sought out a sturdy club-shaped branch, which he pressed diagonally between his tusks so that the upper end protruded and prevented the log from rolling backward. This improvised safety lock kept the log in place; the human onlookers wondered why they had not thought of the solution themselves.

The only work more taxing than loading logs is the clearing of logjams, which requires a level of skill and bravery possessed by few elephants indeed. The elephant must approach the logjam from downstream and search for the key log—the one whose removal will break the jam—among the hundreds that are impeding the stream. Then, with enormous strength and know-how, it must dislodge the log and get out of the way before the force of the breaching barrier harms it. “The clearing of logjams obviously places elephants in tremendous danger,” says Shell. “And for anyone concerned for the elephant’s immediate welfare, it’s hard to defend the practice.” It seems to me that the elephants are aware of the danger, and perhaps take pride in their work.

The emotional capacities of some elephants are astonishing. Sokona was a female elephant deployed in crossing rivers. She had only recently been captured and was still only half trained when, accompanied by her calf, she was asked to cross a dangerously flooded river. Before entering the water she grasped her calf between her tusks and the base of her trunk, her mahout and an assistant riding on her back. The violence of the torrent caused the assistant to lose his footing and plunge into the water. Sokona rescued him by grabbing him with her trunk, continuing to the far bank with both calf and human held securely in her grasp. When asked why she would rescue the man in such dangerous circumstances, her fandi (as master elephant catchers are called by the ethnic Hkamti people of northern Myanmar) said that she was “just naturally compassionate.”

Compassion was also shown by a group of elephants carrying supplies to American troops who were opposing the Japanese advance in Burma’s Tirap Hills during World War II. The lead mahout fired a warning shot to indicate that the convoy was approaching, which the Americans mistook for a Japanese attack. Several dozen elephants and mahouts were killed, and as the surviving mahouts regrouped to discuss what to do, the elephants that had lost their mahouts picked them up and carried them sixty miles back to Chowkham, where they delivered the bodies to the men’s families.

The hobbles worn by working elephants to limit their nocturnal roamings often break, allowing the elephants to wander out of reach and to be absent from work for long periods. This can cause considerable inconvenience, and Shell wonders why the mahouts don’t use stronger hobbles. It seems possible, he concludes, that the “breakable” shackles offer something of a safety valve for frustrated or angry elephants. Tellingly, the shackles are often broken by elephants wishing to mate, a process that seems to require associating in the jungle for several days with the prospective partner. On other occasions, elephants break their shackles when they need to get away from the stress of camp life.

Like their African relatives, male Asian elephants experience musth, a periodic condition marked by a rise in reproductive hormones and aggression. Working elephants in musth are often left to wander, but their behavior, which can verge on the bizarre, can be a concern. One elephant in Burma would, when in musth, “maniacally dig up graves and chew on the remains of human bodies,” the fresher the better. If a funeral had occurred just prior to the onset of his musth, the elephant would be kept chained up so it could not disturb the grave.

Some elephants are killers. They attack any strange elephant approaching their camp, and on occasion have even killed humans. One such is Neh Ong, a male tusker working in logging and transport in Kachin State, Myanmar. His mahout is Mong Cho, an ethnic Hkamti man in his mid-forties who seems to have a unique bond with this difficult elephant. “Are you ever afraid of the big one [Neh Ong]?” Shell asked him. Mong Cho replied, “I try to be careful. But really, it wouldn’t make sense to be afraid…. I’ve been with him for a long time—since he was very little. It’s been nearly thirty years now. He is more like a son than a friend.”

Just a year before Shell interviewed Mong Cho, Neh Ong had killed Mong’s nephew, who had been acting as his mahout. Mong Cho has a family in the village, but Neh Ong is so demanding that he spends much of his life in the forest with the huge bull. Months can go by without Mong Cho’s seeing his wife or his young son. Pondering the situation, Shell concludes that “perhaps Neh Ong wanted Mong Cho nearby” and that “Mong Cho was sleeping up in the hills to soothe and comfort his powerful but troubled lead tusker, to whom he felt such paternal affection.”

Elephants have long been used in warfare. While the heyday of the war elephant was several millennia ago, around 218 BC, when Hannibal and his thirty-seven war elephants crossed the Alps into Italy, they have played a vital part in more recent wars. Xuan Thieu was a Vietnamese mahout whose elephant, Pak Chan, worked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Pak Chan was useful not just for transporting materials but for helping his platoon avoid danger. He could tell the difference between the sounds of reconnaissance planes and fighter jets, and would take the appropriate evasive action, with the rest of the herd, and the humans, following his lead.

The American war in Vietnam was a catastrophe for the elephants, because it was waged against the forest itself. Napalm and Agent Orange were used to defoliate enormous areas, thereby removing cover, and US air command had a policy of deliberately targeting elephants. The edict was not popular, however, with one helicopter pilot, who said that “killing elephants is like blasting your grandmother.” Despite the revulsion, the strategy was effective. By war’s end, Vietnam’s elephant population had declined from thousands to a few hundred.

Elephants continue to be used in conflict in the autonomous regions of Myanmar, where the Kachin Independence Army in the far north of the country employs elephant convoys to ferry supplies along routes that are inaccessible to the Burmese army. The conflict has become more deadly in recent years, with more than 100,000 people fleeing their homes for refuge in neighboring countries or in camps.

Humans clearly benefit from their relationship with elephants. But what of the elephants themselves? Shell thinks that the capture of wild elephants for use in logging camps does not significantly reduce the size of the wild population, and that, overall, the benefits working elephants bring to the elephant population as a whole are substantial. He believes that inbreeding, which is a significant problem for the isolated populations of wild elephants, is ameliorated by working elephants. Those with skills in high demand can travel widely, taking the opportunity to mate with wild animals as they go, thereby refreshing the gene pool. (Incidentally, some elephants are so well traveled that they understand commands in three or four languages.) Another important benefit, Shell argues, is the way that working elephants act as a buffer for wild elephant populations. Being partially controlled, they can survive in areas where wild elephants might inflict severe damage to crops.

As beneficial as this all might be, does it really justify sentencing a sentient being to a lifetime in chains? I suspect that most Western readers would, on the grounds of animal cruelty or concern at human domination of nature, favor ending the relationship. In any case, it seems that the practice of capturing wild elephants is dying out, and improved road and bridge infrastructure, along with exhaustion of logging resources, is leaving elephants with less work to do.

Shell worries that working elephants have a limited future, and that as the last of them die the wild elephant populations will dwindle. His proposed solution involves governments using elephants as a sort of emergency service for flood relief. There is no doubt that elephants are uniquely suited to such work, or that, thanks to climate change, floods are becoming more frequent and severe. But will the governments of places such as Brunei (as suggested by Shell) have the wisdom to adopt such measures, and to maintain populations of elephants year-round, near their cities, for use in times of flood? The greater question, for all of humanity, is how we will assure the survival of the Asian elephants, creatures so similar to us that those who know them best consider them family.