The subtitle is slightly misleading. This book is definitely a biography of the African elephant, but not from the point of view of the elephant, but of man's relationship with the African elephant. So note. This means that the science of the elephant is not the main thrust of this book, in fact, the biology, zoology, and ecology of the elephant is maybe a fourth of this book. So if you are looking solely for science, this book will disappoint you.
Bottom line first: If you are a fan of the elephant, or if this is your first book on the elephant, than this is a good book. If you know a lot about the science of the elephant, and want to know more about the culture of the elephant, this is a good start. Those wanting more science or more about the craft of ivory art, look else where.
Now, that is it, but read on for more details, if you like. This book is -rather- the history of man's relationship with the African elephant. It's quite romantic, tragic, and greedy at the same time. Meredith presents us with many facets of the elephant. From it's mythology in the ancient world, symbolizing both wisdom, and power. To the greed of the ivory trade which has happened several times in the past and has almost lead to the extinction of the elephant each time. There are plenty of color pictures showing the elephant as well as some nice illustrations peppered throughout the book.
So it starts right away with ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. And just how the elephants were used in these societies. Mostly for war, and for ivory. So, we see the history of elephant use in wars, from Alexanders first encounter with them, to Carthage's valiant attempt to overthrow Rome.
Meredith has almost captured the romance and the allure of Africa, from a colonial European viewpoint. Here, we are introduced to fabled lands of Punt, of Zanzibar. He even shows us the ties between the elephant and the Arabian nights. There are plenty of stories of the hunt, and of legendary hunters and their big adventures which included not only hunting elephants, but discovering such places as the source of the Nile.
There are some exciting passages of just how the elephant was hunted. From hunters that would to hang by an elephant tail, and bring it down, to spear hunters, to eventually gunmen.
Now, I say, from a colonial European viewpoint, because the ivory trade is intimately tied to both gold and slavery, and Meredith isn't shy to report these things too. The terrible greed is presented with some really vivid stories. One of them is about Arab merchants killing women's babeis to help the women better carry the ivory.
Throughout all the mayhem, Meredith shows the elephant as a very intelligent, gentle, and dare I say wise being. The stories are quite heartbreaking. Hunters doing mortal wound experiments finally notices the down elephant tearing, and puts it out of its misery. A calf cries in help after being stuck in a hunters trap. It's family tries to pull it out, but is scared away by hunters. Later, another troop comes, and the calf is adopted. Siblings knotting their tusks in intimate family bonding. In some ways, elephant families are more intimate than human ones.
Later chapters, present the science of the elephant. And since I'm a science fan, I found these chapters the most interesting. Meredith points out the differences between African savannah and forest elephants, and that of Indian elephants. He also writes about how elephants communicate, and their mating behaviors. But, by far the most interesting chapter in the entire book had to do with death. It is speculated that elephants 'know' of death, just as much as we do. They seem to grieve. They bury their dead. The look after the bones of their ancestors. In one story, an elephant breaks into a compound, retrieves the bones of a downed elephant, and places them back at the site where the downed elephant was shot.
Now let's get on with the negatives. Meredith focuses too much on the destruction of the elephant. Instead of having one chapter about how elephants were decimated by colonial europeans, we have several chapters each focusing on a particular region of Africa. And for each chapter, the story is much the same: an explorer finds a route into a region, a trade route is established, tusks, slaves, gold, rubber come out of the region.
It is a sad tale, and the story deserves it space, but I would rather they had focused on other things. For instance, he could have discussed more about the luxury of ivory. What makes it so alluring for people. We could have pictures of some of the items he talks about, like the chyrselephantine that are statues made of ivory and gold. With people more sympathetic to the elephant, it is hardly understandable today why anyone would want to kill an elephant to make a trinket.
Also, there are many questions unanswered that I wish Meredith will address in his next edition. What was man's pre-historical relationship with the elephant? Native Africans seemed to have lived with the elephant peacefully, it was the outsiders and ancient cultures that had a thirst for elephants. Meredith please speculate! Also, Elephants can have a powerful influence on the environment, turning jungles into savannahs. Could it be that the elephant had some influence on the expanding Sahara desert?
This is the biography of the African elephant, but I would have loved to have known the fate of Indian elephants. What about the species of elephants that lived on Greece which were only 3 feet high?
Finally, the illustrations, and pictures were a nice edition, but some key photos/drawings should be added to the next edition. In particular, is the comparison of the African savannah elephant to the African forest elephant to the Indian elephant, comparing the visible differences between these three species.
So, in summary, this book is a broad look at man's relationship with the African elephant. There are some parts that are too detailed, but Meredith overall does a fine job. He shows us just how atrocious, cruel, and mean Man's behavior has been, in stark contrast to the wise, compassionate, and graceful behavior of the Elephant.