“Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working With Elephants”

November 6, 2019

BookShelf: “Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working With Elephants”

By Jacob Shell
W.W. Norton & Co., $26.95

Reviewed by Melody Kemp

The closest most people get to an elephant is from a safe distance, when the majestic animal is behind either a wall and water course, fence or worst case, in a cage. 

That is, most of the world encounters elephants in the controlled environments of zoos or conservation parks (thankfully, the days of circus elephants are in many countries at an end).

But where I live in Laos, elephants can crop up in the capital grazing a converted wetland or, with a mahout (elephant handler), begging in the streets at festival time. 

The French colonials thought that Laos was home to thousands of elephants. An early film called “Chang” (Thai for elephants) pictured hundreds of gleaming wet jumbos frolicking in the Mekong. 

Yet even here elephants are now a dwindling part of the landscape. Most are still in the mountainous forested areas or in the remarkable Elephant Conservation Centre, where — among other things — domesticated jumbos are taken for rewilding.

But nothing can prepare you for your first encounter; a strange feeling at times, the frisson that one experiences being up close and personal with a creature that could kill you at any moment.


Insight into the lives of mahouts, elephants

This is my only criticism of Jacob Shell’s book, “Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working With Elephants.” He is the complete academic, removed and observant, a geographer and professor of urban studies at Temple University. 

I wondered how he found his fascination with the wild. He never tells us. I never get any inkling of how this experience affects him, his feelings and his sense of awe. He talks about riding elephants in the forest of Kachin state as he would write about catching a bus. 


As forests are increasingly logged and 

roads dissect habitats, it’s becoming 

more dangerous, as elephants are 

sensitive to risk and to the 

hunger that assails their young.


Occasionally, you catch a glimpse of this ‘Wow I’m really here.’ But rarely. He also dodges the outrage of animal rights activists who protest riding elephants. His depiction of them as transport is at odds with their claims of cruelty, made even more poignant by the elephant actually assisting people aboard.

Those are my only quibbles. Otherwise, this book gave me a great insight into the lives of mahouts and elephants inside one of Myanmar’s most conflict-ridden states. And Shell’s black-and-white photos also give distant readers some appreciation of the conditions and the reality of what he describes.


Logging raises risks

It’s strange to think of Elon Musk trying to domesticate Mars, while in Myanmar people are still using elephants for transport logging and camouflage.  

Shell spends time with members of the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, who are still battling intrusions from all sides, including China. The elephants enable them to ride unseen under the forest canopy. Their quiet walk and steady certain gait are safer than trucks or tanks. 

As forests are increasingly logged and roads dissect habitats, it’s becoming more dangerous, as elephants are sensitive to risk and to the hunger that assails their young. 

When walking in Loei in northern Thailand, I kept coming upon the cannonball-sized droppings (or should I say thuddings) of the wild herds. A bit of me wanted to see one, while another part knew that such an encounter might precipitate an angry confrontation. I was in their territory; they were not in mine.

I thought I knew a bit about elephants. My first book in Lao was called “32 Souls” (“Sam sip song Kwan” in Lao language), written about the first elephant festival I attended. This was no circus extravaganza; rather, an opportunity to see and appreciate the intelligence and wonder of these giants. 

Kwan can be translated as souls but are in fact life spirits. Both elephants and humans are thought to have 32. Any substantial event such as going into the jungle or getting married can change the balance of your Kwan so a baci (ceremony and said as Baassi) is held to reunite the errant souls with the body.

The elephant is the only animal to warrant a baci. It reveals the esteem they are held in as protectors of the Buddha.


Deliberate targeting by U.S. airmen

But I realized how little I knew of logging elephants, or even just how exquisitely intelligent they are. Shell’s book gave me huge insights into their sensitivity and innovative problem-solving. 

He points out their opportunism: sometimes it’s better to join the gang and eat well than to go back to the wild.

I knew that many (about 400) elephants were killed in Laos by American pilots during the war on Vietnam. But I mistakenly thought they were collateral damage. 

Shell points out that they were deliberately targeted by U.S. airmen as they carried supplies for the Viet Cong along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I understand many fighters tried to evade this order but were sternly spoken to by central command.

What I didn’t know was that the United States might have been responsible for the virtual extinction of elephants in neighboring Vietnam, both by the actual targeting but also because of the widespread use of defoliants that effectively and permanently destroyed their habitats. 

When I was last in Vietnam, the areas once sprayed had been planted with exotic cabinet timbers — not native forest.


The fundamental issue that stuck with me 

was the suggestion that in these days of 

climate change-precipitated disasters, the elephant — 

with its careful, sure-footed tread — 

could form the basis of an emergency rescue squad.


Shell speaks some of the local languages, and is obviously at home in the Kachin village. 

His spirit of adventure blends well with the obvious simpatico to respectfully research women mahouts. 

Yes, there are and were women who take command of their jumbos, but rarely the musth-prone tuskers. While elephant cows have been known to go into musth,  it’s more characteristic of males. 


Elephant as emergency rescue squad

Shell tells the story well, without the jargon and high-handedness often found in works by academics. Instead it’s a human story of hard work, relationships, uncertainty and — of course — conflict. 

The much-applauded Madame Aung San Suu Kyi, an ethnic Burman, had done little to reduce the conflict against other ethnic groups. Or their elephants. Shell contains the story of the ongoing war in Myanmar within the story of the elephants, as their lives and risks are parallel.  

But the fundamental issue that stuck with me was the suggestion that in these days of climate change-precipitated disasters, the elephant — with its careful, sure-footed tread — could form the basis of an emergency rescue squad. 

That’s because they can go where machinery can’t. Mud, deep waters and rushing streams present little risk to these forest giants. 

In the end, it’s an ideal book for those with a curiosity about this part of the world and have, like me, a fascination with elephants. 

Melody Kemp is a longtime SEJ member and a freelancer based in Laos.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 40. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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