Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant

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9780151006465: Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant

Revered in Indian religion and culture, coveted for its ivory tusks, the majestic Asian elephant has captured the fascination of humans for more than four thousand years. In an effort to shed light on this regal animal and its unique relationship with humankind, author Stephen Alter traveled around the world to explore its natural home and its place in history and myth.

Alter's search takes him from the depths of wildlife preserves, to a tempting elephant auction, to a dazzling festival dedicated to Ganesha the elephant-headed god. Elephas maximus is as important to modern India as it was centuries ago. Yet conservationists are fighting to preserve its endangered habitat as settlements expand, and ivory poaching has threatened generations of elephants until tuskless males may be all that survive. Charting the elephant in history, art, religion, and folklore, Alter draws a vivid, gorgeously written portrait of its past and its troubled present while offering hope for its future.

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Review:

Mixing mythology and natural history, Stephen Alter lets readers share his lifelong love for the Indian elephant, Elephas maximus. While legends threaten to overwhelm facts in the tale, Alter has nonetheless presented an accurate portrait of his subject, true to centuries of Indian tradition.

Beyond metaphors and fables, elephants occupy an important place in Sanskrit literature. Gajashastra, or "elephant science," was studied and recorded in several texts that are based on oral traditions.

As much travelogue as science book, Elephas inextricably links the Indian elephant with the history of southern Asia itself. In pre-colonial India, elephants were wound up in religion and daily life; in modern times, the animals were first hunted then fetishized by Westerners. Alter reserves judgment on these issues, except to note that none of India's 20th-century history has been good for elephant populations, which are endangered or threatened nearly everywhere. He treks into parks and reserves, seeking out wild elephants and describing their awe-inspiring behaviors. The stories he uncovers along the way--of temple elephants, mysterious Elephanta Island, seagoing elephants, and the god Ganesha--weave a spellbinding tale. --Therese Littleton

From the Back Cover:

“Having observed my fair share of elephants, I’ve found them to be almost ineffably heart-wrenching. So I salute Stephen Alter for persisting, prevailing in the task. These radiant, galumphing, expressive animals are vanishing in the wild. But Alter has been to see them and telepathize.” – Edward Hoagland

One morning in Delhi I watched two tame elephants standing side by side -- a tusker and a cow. They leaned against each other, rubbing flanks and exchanging caresses with their trunks. Decorated by their owners and hired out for the night, these elephants provide an auspicious presence at wedding receptions. The celebrations were long over, though, and in the bright morning sunshine the two looked like a pair of exhausted partygoers. The female nuzzled the male, who flapped his ears contentedly as she pressed her head against his shoulder. They swayed together for a few moments, caught up in their own internal tempo, ignoring everyone around them. Then with sensuous intimacy, the tusker curled his trunk and brushed the female's cheek before he put the end in her mouth. For several seconds she held the tip of his trunk between her lips, as close to a kiss as an elephant can come.

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