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'Giants Of The Monsoon Forest' Explores The Lives Of Working Elephants In Asia

Working elephants of mountainous Myanmar and northeastern India haul timber or transport people by day, then return to the forest at night.

In his new book titled for these elephants, Giants Of The Monsoon Forest: Living And Working With Elephants, geographer Jacob Shell describes the lives of these animals with details at once compelling and disturbing.

Taken from the wild to assist human labor, these highly intelligent Asian elephants experience great disruption to their individual lives. 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. He tacks back and forth between worrying over a human-elephant relationship that "can sometimes be harsh or even abusive" and admiring a system that gives the elephants "substantial periods of time in the forest every day to roam and mate with a considerable degree of freedom."

Of the total remaining Asian elephants in the world today, numbering 40,000 to 50,000, about 9,000 are engaged in logging and transportation labor. This sets them apart from their larger, better-known African counterparts, which face terrible poaching pressures but do not work for a living. Shell closely explores the "unique system" of government-run teak-harvesting villages that underwrite the logging industry in Myanmar (also called Burma and referred to as such in the book). He also visits forest camps in the region around the Patkai Mountains of the Indian-Burmese border, where elephants are used to move goods and people in terrain that, especially during monsoon season, is often next to impassable.

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.

What Shell terms the "interspecies alliance" between elephant and people at first sounds intriguing. "By associating themselves with these humans and their forest-based economy," Shell writes, "Asian elephants boost their own likelihood of inhabiting the sort of landscape in which they tend to be healthiest and happiest," a landscape that "zoos and fenced parks cannot replicate." In an era of increasing acknowledgment that zoo life is physically and emotionally harsh for elephants, that sounds pretty good.

Then slowly, the reality becomes clear. These are wild elephants that are forcibly captured, including by a method called mela shekar. The fandi or elephant-catching expert rides an elephant that specializes in this work. The goal is to lasso a wild elephant that may "crash into the forest in an attempt to escape." This trauma happens to calves as well as adults, because babies are easier to capture and "can provide more decades of service."

During captures of infants, the mother may fight fiercely and the calf experience serious psychological upset. Shell dryly notes, "The breaking up of elephant families is in fact the major disadvantage of the mela shekar capturing method." This situation might better be termed a catastrophe for elephants, whose lives revolve around their families.

The supposed freedom at night in the forest is actually not quite so free, either — the animals must wear fettering chains that bind the elephant's two forelegs the entire time. Logging elephants' tusks are trimmed down to about a foot, the better for the animals to hoist logs. "The trimmed tusks also provided some supplement income," Shell reports. Some mahouts, greedy for more ivory profits, have trimmed the tusk "right down to the nerve, which then became infected." A tool called an ankus may be used to strike an elephant that needs to be disciplined.

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.

Nor do I mean to imply that most mahouts fail to care for elephants, sometimes with love. One mahout, Mong Cho, says about the elephant Neh Ong, "It's been nearly thirty years now. He is more like a son than a friend." Shell so respects the traditional knowledge that he wishes fandis and mahouts would be invited into the international community of those working on elephant conservation.

Yet Shell doesn't just describe this elephant labor system as an act of scholarship, he also advocates for it. Some of what he saw in Burma and India could be models, he thinks, for other areas of Asia with seasonally flooded landscapes where elephants might provide transport. He even wonders if elephants could come into Brunei's capital city to do work during the rainy season.

Poaching, after all, is not the problem for Asian elephants; it is deforestation. Answers to dwindling elephant numbers, Shell asserts, must rest in the hands of those who "base their livelihoods on elephant domestication practices that keep elephants situated within the forest." High-quality elephant parks and wildlife reserves simply can't be scaled up in helpful ways to do the job.

In the future, working elephants' fettering chains might be loosened, elephants might be allowed to wander longer in the forest, and GPS systems might help keep track of them. Anyway, there's no use, Shell believes, in allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

As I read, I wondered whether tweaking the system of elephant capture and labor still leaves too little "good." Is capture and control of wild elephants really the best model we can devise for elephant conservation?

A story Shell recounts from 1942 about elephant Maggie is illuminating. When the Japanese invaded Burma, Maggie accompanied a party of British missionary-hospital workers and others who trekked through muddy, hilly, challenging terrain, heading for India. In the hills, "Maggie was heavily leaden and breathing hard." At the rain-swollen Namyung River, again and again she carried men, women, children, and supplies across.

Maggie made it into India with the group. The next morning, when the mahout went to find Maggie, "he found only the remains of a broken chain. ... She was gone."

A question that clouds every page in Giants of the Monsoon Forest is this: Who could blame her?

Barbara J. King is an author and anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. Her most recent books are How Animals Grieve and Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.