In Giants of the Monsoon Forest (Norton, June), geography professor Shell explores a surprising connection between humans and Asian elephants.
How did this book originate?
In graduate school in geography, I was interested in how people move things about in secret. This grew into an interest in the mobility of animals—whether in following the paths of animals, training animals for navigation and orienteering, or riding animals. I wrote a book in 2015 that briefly explored the subject of forest rebels in South and Southeast Asia who were using elephants to move about the forest, unseen by a road-bound enemy. Giants of the Monsoon Forest really started to pick up momentum from this point onward as a research project, and the field work quickly spread to other regions such as Northeast India and Sumatra.
How would you summarize the human-elephant relationships you studied?
Hill and forest peoples in India and Burma train and utilize elephants for work in the forest, such as cross-forest transport during monsoon seasonal flooding and also for logging in areas that motor vehicles cannot get to. Such people also release their elephants into the forest every night, so the elephants can look for food there and for mates. This balance puts the elephants in a good position to reproduce—elephants in the forest are much likelier to mate than elephants in zoos—while also aligning them with human forest communities committed to protecting them and dependent on the social and economic input they provide.
How does the use of Asian elephants as work animals help conserve them?
A “perfect” situation for the elephants would surely allow all of them to be wild—that is, not trained to carry heavy baggage and skid logs for human beings. That perfect situation would also provide elephants with large wildlife preserves with excellent protections. However, to get the entire species into a condition of wildness would require stimulating revenues to support a massively expanded park network, which in turn would likely require accelerating urban and agricultural development—paradoxically, diminishing overall forest cover so as to protect select pockets of forest. Think of the U.S., where we have a fine system of wildlife parks and preserves where animals are well protected, but we pay for it with revenues gathered from a massively deforested overall national territory. The communities I examined offer a valuable “third way,” deriving economic value from the forest by keeping the forest in place, and depending upon the unique mobility and intelligence of their elephants to help them in doing so. I believe these communities have a tremendous amount to teach concerned outsiders about how to absorb these amazing animals into a working environment that is both human and sylvan [based in the forest], and also conserves the giants.