Elephants & Kings: An Environmental History. By THOMAS R. TRAUTMANN. Chicago: UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2015. Pp. xvi + 372, illus. $30, [pounds sterling]21 (paper).
This wide-ranging book covers a temporal span from pre-prehistory to the present day and an area encompassing a large part of three continents: Asia, from the northeastern reaches of China to the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Mediterranean edges of Europe--though it concentrates on greater India during the historical period, from the Mauryan empire through the Mughal period. It also draws on material from very different fields: archaeozoology, archaeology, art history, ecology, (wild) animal husbandry, but again concentrates on textual evidence (philology broadly conceived). Despite the aggregation of data and analysis from such a disparate variety of fields, it reads like a novel (I mean this as a high compliment)--and it has a tight focus and a solidly argued thesis towards which all the materials mentioned above are directed.
The thesis is a paradoxical one: that elephants and their habitats remained viable in India through most of the historical period because of the singular value attached by kings to war elephants, to elephants as a major component of a properly constituted and successful army--a concept developed in India but exported both to the West (remember Hannibal) and to Southeast Asia, though not to China. Despite the great numbers of elephants that had to be taken from the wild (breeding war elephants not being economical or practical) to support the war-elephant habit across this vast terrain, the need for more and more elephants resulted in land-management practices that facilitated the survival of the elephant forests and thus of the elephants themselves. As Trautmann repeatedly emphasizes, he is not claiming that the kings in question were consciously "green" and ecofriendly, rather that the survival of substantial populations of elephants into modern times resulted from an almost accidental conjunction of royal ideology and a favorable natural environment. This contrasts strongly with the situation in China, where the sad and dramatic shrinkage of elephant ranges from 5000 B.C.E. to 1830 C.E. is graphically portrayed in the second map of the book (fig. 1.2, p. 7) and where one of the factors contributing to the retreat of elephants was, in the author's view, the fact that the war elephant never made inroads in Chinese military organization.