A journey through the hidden world of elephants and their riders.
From the kings of the Indus Valley to Hannibal and his famous Alpine cavalry, humans have been living and working with elephants for millennia. In Giants of the Monsoon Forest, geographer Jacob Shell travels to communities that still rely on this ancient partnership. After the 2004 tsunami, Indonesian officials deployed trained Sumatran elephants to clear wreckage from the flood. Along the mountainous Indian- Burmese border, the logging industry employs several thousand elephants, who fell and drag teak logs with more dexterity than any machine. They share these forests with Kachin rebels, who navigate a secret network of trails atop elephant mounts.
Blending history, science, and reportage, Giants of the Monsoon Forest 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. By working together, fugitive elephants and humans help preserve the wild spaces they both need to survive.
Jacob Shell is a professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University. He lives in Philadelphia.
"At last, Jacob Shell's book Giants of the Monsoon Forest describes a relationship with a fellow creature that – in Burma, at least – is more collegial rather than murderous or exploitative."
– Yi-Fu Tuan, University of Wisconsin, author of Space and Place and Dominance & Affection: The Making of Pets
"Thought-provoking. [...] Examining everything from the muscular miracle of the beast's proboscis to the species' wartime work, Shell also charts the threats facing Asian elephants, and the dearth of local voices in relevant policymaking."
"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."
– Barbara J. King , NPR
"Shell's narrative is skilled at sketching the sociological, geographic, and ethical complexities of human-elephant relationships."
– Jessica Bell Rizzolo, Science
"Among the most enjoyable parts of the book are the stories of individual elephants. [...] Highly readable."
– Rachel Dwyer , Times Literary Supplement
"Never truly domesticated, many elephants in Southeast Asia work for humans during the day and yet are let go at night to forage in the forest. Jacob Shell discusses this age-old pact between two brainy species. Even if our view of the human-animal relationship is changing, the awe in which we hold elephants is amply fed by the stories and history in this fascinating book, especially those in which elephants appear to use their own judgment to solve problems in the field."
– Frans de Waal, author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and Mama's Last Hug
"[A] fascinating and timely account of an overlooked natural bond, the deep tie between people and domesticated elephants. Full of insights into history and with rare accounts from modern-day mahouts, Giants of the Monsoon Forest shows how this ancient relationship provides a path forward – for the elephants, for the forests, and for the rural cultures that rely on both."
– Thor Hanson, author of Buzz
"The greatest strength of Giants of the Monsoon Forest is it's author's clear-eyed pragmatism. Mr. Shell respects elephants without sentimentalizing them."
– Tunku Varadarajan , Wall Street Journal
"A fascinating exploration of a relationship between two species who could not be more different. Tucked away in one of the last pristine forests on earth, humans and elephants have worked together for centuries, forming a unique bond that exists nowhere else. Beautifully written, and carefully researched, Giants of the Monsoon Forest is an important insight into the minds of elephants, and a moving account of both the best and worst of human nature."
– Brian Hare, author of The Genius of Dogs
"For millennia Asian elephants have lived in a complicated relationship between working during the day for humans and returning at night to socialize and mate in the wild with other elephants. This relationship may have helped their species to survive."
– Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human
"[A] beautifully written travelogue and ethnography of the centuries-old relationship between humans and logging elephants."
– Nikil Saval, New Yorker
"A deep dive into the surprisingly complex relationship between [elephants and humans]. [...] Illuminating."
– Rachel Love Nuwer, Undark
"Rigorous, poignant, and highly readable, Giants of the Monsoon Forest is an urgent, impassioned, and important reminder that relations between humans and non-humans need not and must not be as disastrously dislocated as they usually are; that human dignity is increased if we recognize the dignity of our non-human cousins, and dangerously diminished if we do not."
– Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast