High in the mountainous rainforests of Burma and India grow some of the world’s last stands of mature, wild teak. For more than a thousand years, people here have worked with elephants to log these otherwise impassable forests and move people and goods (often illicitly). Offers a new perspective on animal intelligence and reveals an unexpected relationship between evolution in the natural world and political struggles in the human one.
... 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.