Elephants and Kings
An Environmental History
Trautmann traces the history of the war elephant in India and the spread of the institution to the west—where elephants took part in some of the greatest wars of antiquity—and Southeast Asia (but not China, significantly), a history that spans 3,000 years and a considerable part of the globe, from Spain to Java. He shows that because elephants eat such massive quantities of food, it was uneconomic to raise them from birth. Rather, in a unique form of domestication, Indian kings captured wild adults and trained them, one by one, through millennia. Kings were thus compelled to protect wild elephants from hunters and elephant forests from being cut down. By taking a wide-angle view of human-elephant relations, Trautmann throws into relief the structure of India’s environmental history and the reasons for the persistence of wild elephants in its forests.
“The intelligence, majestic presence, and physical prowess of the Asian elephant was not lost on India’s monarchs. As historian Thomas Trautmann shows in this scholarly environmental history, the beast’s usefulness in warfare and its prodigious dietary needs ensured royal protection for swathes of forest in ancient India, where the wild animals were captured for specialized training. That the country still has 30,000 elephants is a testament to their enduring place in the collective imagination; but as Trautmann argues, India’s surviving patchwork of thirty-one elephant reserves may not sustain them.”