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Living and Working with Elephants

by Jacob Shell

Pub Date: June 11th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-393-24776-3
Publisher: Norton

The fate of Asian elephants raises important questions for conservationists.

In this illuminating book, geographer Shell (Geography and Urban Studies/Temple Univ.; Transportation and Revolt: Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility, 2015) reports on his visits to the “remote forestlands between India and Burma,” where he followed the trails of working elephants and their riders, called “mahouts.” Strong and amazingly sure-footed, the trained elephants are able to traverse monsoon-soaked landscapes, ford torrential waters, climb up and down mountains, and lift and carry huge weights, making them essential to the logging industry. Of 40,000-50,000 elephants in South and Southeast Asia—compared with some half a million African elephants—about a third are involved in labor. While most African elephants exist in the wild, the working Asian elephants have been domesticated in a process that the author realizes will disturb many readers: “a captured elephant is usually tied up for months on end in the forest, each leg fastened to a tree,” denied food at first, then rewarded with treats for learning commands—or struck on the back or ear with a metal-tipped instrument. Once trained, elephants work days and are released into the forest at night to forage for food and mate, though their front legs are fettered with a chain to keep them from ranging too far. Most are not eager to escape since cooperating with humans protects them from hunters and poachers. Shell describes in detail elephants’ power, ingenuity, intelligence, and “profound feelings of loyalty and protectiveness” that make them so valued. This relationship between human and elephant, the author suggests, is a result of displacement when encroaching farmland pushed animal and human communities out of their original habitat in the plains. Both migrated to forests, where humans, turning to lumbering as a new livelihood, found elephants indispensable. To animal rights proponents who argue that elephants should live in the wild, Shell points out that with little effective protection, their habitat is vulnerable to deforestation. 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.