Popular culture has long depicted elephants as having great memories. But in his fascinating study, Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants, geography professor Jacob Shell reveals more: the animals' brilliant problem-solving skills and compassion for other living beings. Shell traveled through the remote forests of India and Burma to meet mahouts, human riders of elephants, who train and then ride the giant animals along dirt trails half-submerged in overflowing river water and hidden from satellite view by some of the thickest tree canopies in the world.
The elephants perform a variety of labor. Some are load-bearing, carrying heavy packs filled with resources between villages. Others assist with logging. In one particularly startling passage, Shell describes watching an elephant refuse orders to march forward because it understood that the humans were in danger of falling over a poorly balanced log. Instead, the elephant found a tree branch and used it as a "safety lock" to hold the log securely. The human onlookers were "astounded" and "wondered why they hadn't thought of it themselves." The book brims with moments like these, throwing into question, Shell says, whether it has been "the elephants all along, rather than the humans, who innovated" ways of traversing--and surviving in--the forests.
Shell also touches on how cooperation between humans and elephants benefits the elephants as well; because of this relationship they've gained access to more land and to other elephants with which to breed. This stunning book will amaze even the most well-read animal lovers. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor