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An unlikely interspecies partnership hints at a potential model for conservation

Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants

Jacob Shell
291 pp.
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In Giants of the Monsoon Forest, Jacob Shell examines the dual world inhabited by a group of elephants in the “Trans-Patkai” region of Asia, an area that spans remote parts of Burma and India and is one of the last densely forested areas on Earth. Part of the human world by day, these elephants, who are captured or bred in captivity and trained to work with human handlers known as “mahouts,” are released into the forest at night, an arrangement that facilitates both freedom and frustration for the elephants and raises important questions about human dominance and the conservation of species. Without endorsing all the behaviors engaged in by the mahouts, Shell argues that mahout-elephant interaction offers an important model for protection of the Asian elephant in a world where the species is threatened by escalating deforestation and industrialization.

Shell describes the various ways that humans have used elephants in this part of the world: as beasts of burden for logging, as essential forms of transport in monsoon-dominated landscapes, as weapons of war, and as rescuers for stranded travelers and flood survivors. Because elephants can traverse flooded and roadless landscapes, they have also been used for secret, illegal, and marginalized purposes that range from the transport of supplies for rebel armies to the withdrawal of refugees.

The elephants who populate this book demonstrate remarkable problem-solving abilities and physical dexterity but also what Shell calls “strange behaviors”—intense aggression, attempting to join wild herds, and gravedigging, for example—that result from straddling the human and elephant worlds. In one case, a female elephant was found with her feet crushing her own trunk—an apparent suicide. These behaviors are not merely odd but symptoms of psychological trauma (1), the implications of which Shell could have explored further.

The book is full of tales of interspecies collaboration, as well as elephants who defy classification: “paglis,” who are neither domesticated nor wild. Shell is fascinated by the fact that captive Asian elephants, who are biologically identical to their wild conspecifics, exist at all. It is, he notes, as though humans trained wolves for the tasks performed by dogs, and it worked.

Whereas ivory poaching is one of the largest threats to the African elephant, a core risk to the survival of the Asian elephant is rapid deforestation. Ironically, Shell notes, informal forest preservation—forest protection arising from efforts to preserve forest-based livelihoods—is often more effective at protecting Asian elephant habitat than formal protection. Although development yields the economic and institutional resources to create these protections, it can also contribute to pockets of isolated forest with limited opportunities to expand the elephant gene pool.

Asian elephants, Shell argues, have developed skills useful to humans through anthropogenic evolution. In his words, as “fugitive” humans entered the forest to avoid lowland colonization, elephants who worked with them experienced higher rates of mating and genetic survival. To this day, the use of elephants persists among minority and marginalized groups.

Shell’s narrative is skilled at sketching the sociological, geographic, and ethical complexities of human-elephant relationships and introducing nuance into perceptions of mahoutship. He contends that the use of captive elephants, particularly for flood relief in an increasingly flood-prone world, could help ensure the persistence of forestland and thus the survival of the species.

Shell is also aware of the animal welfare and ethical dilemmas that this model of conservation implies. However, he could have gone further in outlining a model of conservation that protects both individual elephants and the species, a necessity given the interdependence of animal psychological well-being and species resilience (2).

In the end, Giants of the Monsoon Forest offers an absorbing look at the dual world of semicaptive Asian elephants and convincingly argues for the interdependence of elephants and forest protection. Conservationists should keep this in mind: The survival of this elephant depends on solutions that are not only attuned to human culture but to elephant culture as well.


  1. 1. J. B. Rizzolo, G. A. Bradshaw, in Wild Animals and Leisure: Rights and Wellbeing, N. Carr, J. Young, Eds. (Routledge, 2018), pp. 113–131.

  2. 2. G. A. Bradshaw et al., Nature 433, 807 (2005)

About the author

The reviewer is a dual Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Environmental Science and Policy, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.