************** BOOK IS AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE NOW **************

GIANTS OF THE MONSOON FOREST: Living and Working with Elephants (New York: WW Norton).


A journey through the hidden world of elephants and their riders.

High in the mountainous rainforests of Burma and India grow some of the world’s last stands of mature, wild teak. For more than a thousand years, people here have worked with elephants to log these otherwise impassable forests and move people and goods (often illicitly) under cover of the forest canopy. In Giants of the Monsoon Forest, geographer Jacob Shell takes us deep into this strange elephant country to explore the lives of these extraordinarily intelligent creatures.

The relationship between elephant and rider is an intimate one that lasts for many decades. When an elephant is young, he or she is paired with a rider, who is called a mahout. The two might work together their entire lives. Though not bred to work with humans, these elephants can lift and carry logs, save people from mudslides, break logjams in raging rivers, and navigate dense mountain forests with passengers on their backs.

Visiting tiny logging villages and forest camps, Shell describes fascinating characters, both elephant and human—like a heroic elephant named Maggie who saves dozens of British and Burmese refugees during World War II, and an elephant named Pak Chan who sneaks away from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to mate with a partner in a passing herd. We encounter an eloquent colonel in a rebel army in Burma’s Kachin State, whose expertise is smuggling arms and valuable jade via elephant convoy, and several particularly smart elephants, including one who discovers, all on his own, how to use a wood branch as a kind of safety lock when lifting heavy teak logs.

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. Shell examines why the complex tradition of working with elephants has endured with Asian elephants, but not with their counterparts in Africa. And he shows us how Asia’s secret forest culture might offer a way to save the elephants. By performing rescues after major floods—as they did in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—and helping sustainably log Asian forests, humans and elephants working together can help protect the fragile spaces they both need to survive.


New York Review of Books:
Times Literary Supplement:
Wall Street Journal:
Science Magazine:
Paste Magazine:
NPR Review of Books:
New Yorker:
Undark Magazine:
Publishers Weekly:
Kirkus Reviews:

Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane WHYY:
Talk Radio Europe:
Australian ABC National Radio (click Download to listen):
American Scholar Smarty Pants Podcast:
Big Picture Science (primatologist Frans de Waal also featured in episode):
Newstalk Radio, Ireland’s Sean Moncrieff Show:
Philly Free Library Recorded Event:
Curious Man’s Podcast:

“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?


“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


“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


“No one who loves elephants or how humans interact with wildlife should pass up Jacob Shell’s remarkable book. From Hannibal’s elephants, to those of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to the author’s own accounts of logging elephants in Burma, Shell’s stories of these intelligent animals and their human companions sing with compassion. I was thoroughly hooked.” — Dan Flores, author of Coyote America


“A thrilling exploration of the unique alliance between humans and elephants in one of the world’s last great shadowy regions (beyond even the reach of Google Maps). Not only brimful of fantastic tales of derring-do—escapes, rescues, and furtive forest work—Giants of the Monsoon Forest is also a brave manifesto for how this age-old, mysterious, and symbiotic relationship might survive, and even help to protect, the Earth’s fast-diminishing wilderness.” — Emma Larkin, author of Finding George Orwell in Burma


Jacob Shell (2019), "The Enigma of the Asian Elephant: Sovereignty, Reproductive Nature, and the Limits of Empire," Annals of the American Association of Geographers Volume 109, 2019 – Issue 4.


Jacob Shell (2018), "Elephant Convoys Beyond the State: Animal Transport as Subversive Logistics," Environment and Planning D: Society and Space


Jacob Shell (2015), "Elephant States," n+1 Volume 18 (see link bottom of page)


Jacob Shell (2015), "When Roads Cannot be Used: The Use of Asian Elephants for Off-Road Conveyance, Emergency Logistics and Political Revolt in South and Southeast Asia," Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies Volume 3 (1).

Jacob Shell (2019), "Nighttime Release and ‘Zomian’ Elephant-Based Transportation Working elephant possibilities in Kachin State (Myanmar) & Arunachal Pradesh (India)," Elephant Collaborative.



Everything below on this page presents maps which I’ve made, photographs I’ve taken, and visual imagery by others which I’ve collected, while researching communities that use trained elephants as transportation during the monsoon season. Such communities can be found in the mountainous borderlands between the Kachin region of northern Burma (also called Myanmar) and Arunachal Pradesh, in the far northeast of India.

The research extends some themes from my 2015 book “Transportation and Revolt” – especially pertaining to the politics of less-visible forms of mobility. It also looks at some possible lessons these elephant-riding communities might be able to offer to species conservationists.


Work elephants near Patkai Mountains, Indoburmese Borderlands. Jacob Shell. 2016.

Map B. Burma + Northeast India. Cartography by Jacob Shell.

Nepali elephant driver (mahout). India. Jacob Shell. 2016.

Elephant pulls car through the mud in Hpakant region of Kachin State, Burma, circa 2012 (photo by Hkun Lat / Sakse Collective).

Map C. Trans-Patkai Region and WW2 refugee escapes-on-elephantback narratives. Cartography by Jacob Shell.

1922 topo map of main research area: Patkai Mountains, Kachin Hills, Hukaung and Lohit Valleys (used as "base map" for design of Map C above).

Elephant-mounted rescue of WW2 refugees fleeing Burma and stranded at Dapha River, 1942.

Transport elephants with Japanese troops, Burma, 1944 (Mainichi Newspaper Company).

Kachin independence soldiers cross stream in northern Burma, 1989 (from Shelby Tucker, “Among Insurgents”).

Kachin Independence Army elephants, 2011. Ryan Libre.

At the youtube address below, some pretty fascinating footage of Kachin refugees fleeing fighting in the Hukawng Valley in May of 2018, riding elephants to get from their village to an IDP camp. With thanks to Jerome Palawng Awng Lat:


Kachin refugees and elephants flee village during violence in Hukawng Valley, May 2018. See footage at link above. Jerome Palawng Awng Lat.

Crossing the Sissiri River in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, India. 2017. Jacob Shell.

Elephant "ferry" over the Sissiri River near Dambuk, Arunchal Pradesh. 2017. Ayem Modi.

Logging elephants. Jacob Shell. 2016.

Elephant with sacks of charcoal. Central Burma. Jacob Shell. 2016.

Elephant logging village. Central Burma. Jacob Shell. 2013.

Logging mahout, India. Jacob Shell. 2016.

Loggers camp, Patkai foothills. Jacob Shell. 2016.

Retired mahout couple, Burma. Jacob Shell. 2016.

Relief elephant in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, immediately after 2004 Great Indian Ocean Tsunami (photo by Chris Stremme).

One of the project’s central distinctions is between domesticated elephants who are kept in corrals at night, and domesticated elephants who during the night are given freedom to wander nearby forestland. Usually either of these can tell us what kinds of human work the elephants are assisting in during the day.

If kept in enclosed environments during the night, the elephants are probably doing tourism work, or marching in festive and religious parades. Historically such elephants might have been doing war combat.

If permitted to roam freely at night, the domesticated elephants are almost certainly doing logging work or cross-forest transportation. I’ve focused on these types of elephant labor, logging and transport. Thanks to the nighttime release period, these kinds of work are many ways beneficial to elephant welfare and fertility–keeping the elephants situated in the forests while also associating them with humans who have a personal and economic motivation in safeguarding their elephants. Asian elephants also bring unique, high-value skills to forest logistics, enabling mobilities which motor equipment and wheeled vehicles cannot easily replace in the difficult monsoon terrain.
In the remaining geography of elephant-based transportation and logging, several regions are of importance:
– the Kachin area in northern Burma/Myanmar, especially the Jinghpaw and Hkamti areas of the Hukawng Valley and Hpakant jade area.
– the Myanmar Timber Enterprise’s elephant logging village network; key areas are the upper Irrawaddy valley, the Chindwin valley, the Bago (Pegu) Hills, the Rakhine Hills
– Homalin on upper Chindwin, Burma
– the Karen (Kayin) Hills
– the Hkamti area around Namsai and Chowkam in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, India
– the Singpho area around the Manabum hill range in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, India
– The Moran area along the Noa Dihing in Arunachal and Assam, India
– Dambuk river-peninsula in Arunachal, India
– Sayaboury (Xayaboury) in W Laos.

Other researchers focused on the topic sometimes opt for words like “captive”, “trained”, and “tamed” to refer to these elephants, since they are not selectively bred by humans. I think all of these words have certain semantic tradeoffs. I prefer the word “domesticated” in its literal sense: made friendly to the domus–to the the human home or habitat.

Circa 1660 Indian painting of elephant combat (at Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Mid-20th century diagram of an “elephant raft” for getting work elephants (likely for teak logging) across a river (from AJ Ferrier’s "Care and Management of Elephants in Burma," 1947).

Depiction of elephant riding in the Meroite culture of ancient Sudan (in Scullard’s The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World).

1878 painting by Henri-Paul Motte, depicting Hannibal’s 218 BC crossing of the Rhone River, with war elephants crossing on rafts.

A related research project of mine centers upon the history African elephant domestication. This research touches upon elephant domestication by:
– Meroites [Sudan] (400 BC)
– Carthaginians and Numidians (3rd c BC)
– Ptolemaic Egyptians and Troglodytes/Blemmyes (3rd c BC)
– Axumites and Bejas (1st-6th c AD)
– Second-hand 19th century info about elephant domestication possibly occurring in southern Mozambique
– Second-hand 19th century info about elephant domestication possibly occurring in Maniema, eastern Congo
– European colonial attempts to introduce domesticated Asian elephants into Africa

Cartography by Jacob Shell.