Love, War and Circuses by Eric Scigliano

A marriage of wonderment and sheer brutality

How do you get an animal 10 feet tall weighing eight tons to do what you want - be it lifting a heavy log or parading round a circus ring? You whack it, then you whack it again, and again. Just as the main objection to slaughtering whales is the sheer violence used to kill creatures so large, so the repellent aspect of getting elephants to work for human beings is the force necessary for coercion.

This is unlikely to be the conclusion Scigliano wants his readers to take away from this study of the "age-old relationship" between elephants and humans. He has set out to portray something more complex: an ancient, subtle process of wonderment and fascination, mutual affection and respect. There is plenty of that in this exhaustive account of the links between man and pachyderm, going back thousands of years. But somehow, in the end, it always seems to come down to whacking.

It is the smaller, Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) that concerns him, the larger African species (Loxodonta africana) being too wild to co-operate with humans. The problem is that even though Asian animals can be made to work as beasts of burden, they remain essentially wild, and potentially violent. Although hugely intelligent, long anthropomorphised as wise and gentle, they are, in fact, stubborn, unpredictable grudge-bearers, quick to take offence. In the US so many handlers are killed that elephant-keeping is one of America's most dangerous jobs.

Yet they fascinate us. In the West we gawp at their size and the wonder of the trunk; in the East, they are seen as bringers of good fortune, even gods (Ganesh in the Hindu pantheon). Scigliano gives a comprehensive account of elephant history and lore. The Romans allowed Hannibal's favourite, Surus, an honourable retirement; the Bible is one of the few sacred texts in which elephants do not appear; the slaughter for ivory in the late 19th century was because of the demand for billiard balls rather than piano keys; and the Germans used an elephant as a draught animal on the Western Front.

The body of the book is Scigliano's exploration of working practices, first with the mahouts in the teak forests of Asia (he has travelled through Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Burma), then in the zoos and circuses of the US. It is an original and balanced study, but ultimately depressing because, despite all the close contact and understanding, the threat of brute force is never far away. Worst of all, until the fairly recent past, elephants that ran riot in circuses or zoos were executed - there isn't really any other word - by being hanged from cranes, poisoned, electrocuted, or shot. And shooting an elephant takes a lot of bullets. At the end, you feel that the relationship is like a bad marriage. It's enduring, but maybe we should never have got into it.