... a beautifully written travelogue and ethnography of the centuries-old relationship between humans and logging elephants ... written in a lightly antique mode that’s somehow appropriate to this study of vanishing ways of life in a region strafed by nationalist conflict ... Shell’s examination of elephant riders and the social lives of the 'giants' themselves reveals a political order, subterranean and anarchic, that goes against the centralizing tendencies of the authoritarian states where these relationships have developed.
The author is a professor of geography, but his analysis combines urban planning, economics, anthropology and military history. Yet in 200-odd jargon-free pages, he never strays far from old-fashioned storytelling and an almost childlike love for a singular species ... Those not well versed in contemporary Burmese politics will benefit from (but may occasionally be made dizzy by) Mr. Shell’s expertise, from the ethnic particulars of Kachins, Shans, Karens and Burmans to the intricacies of forestry politics ... The greatest strength of Giants of the Monsoon Forest is its author’s clear-eyed pragmatism. Mr. Shell respects elephants without sentimentalizing them. He notes that the work ethic of Asian elephants is unsurpassed. But he floats the idea that elephants may be as opportunistic as the handlers who sometimes abuse them.
This relationship may sound undesirable or even detestable to those who wish to see Asian elephants living free. But as Shell’s book makes clear, it’s their role as laborers, rather than as tourist attractions, which may save the species. It’s a moral area as grey as the elephant’s flesh, but worth examining if the world’s endangered Asian elephant population is going to survive ... It’s a controversial position to insist that some of these intervention methods may be the best for the animals, but time is quickly running out. By making Asian elephants an important part of the economy and appealing to the most powerful of human motivations, greed, these creatures may yet be saved.
... Shell describes the lives of these animals with details at once compelling and disturbing ... Shell views their plight with sympathy but, in the end, subscribes to the view that future conservation of the Asian elephant may well depend on just such an arrangement ... Shell's research is extensive and meticulous. He complements visits to logging and transport camps, and interviews with human stakeholders, with a review of elephant labor in history, including during major conflicts from the time of Alexander the Great through the Vietnam War ... I don't mean to suggest that Shell is indifferent to this brutality. He meets, admires, and sometimes rides individual elephants with evident appreciation, as when bull Air Singh demonstrates, with striking powers of creative reasoning, step-by-step solutions for how to maneuver logs in a complicated work task...Yet Shell doesn't just describe this elephant labor system as an act of scholarship, he also advocates for it.
Shell’s focus on these partially domesticated specimens breaks new ground in popular science treatments of the elephant, which are more commonly concerned with the better-known wild African variety. And his nuanced look at the mahout-elephant connection allows him to showcase an unusually reciprocal relationship between humans and another species. Readers interested in animal intelligence and emotions, as well as how they are affected by contact with humans, will be spellbound by Shell’s thorough study.
... illuminating ... Shell describes in detail elephants’ power, ingenuity, intelligence, and 'profound feelings of loyalty and protectiveness' that make them so valued ... To those who see only a 'picture of domination,' Shell makes a persuasive case that the reality is complicated ... An insightful look at a rare cross-species relationship.