I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a major soft spot for pachyderms. All those news stories about violence against elephants kill me, so when I read the premise of Tania James’s new book, The Tusk that Did the Damage, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that it would probably make me cry. Set in South India, The Tusk that Did the Damage weighs the costs of the ivory trade from three different perspectives: a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and a elephant whom locals fear and refer to as the Gravedigger.
The Gravedigger witnessed the murder of his mother when he was a young calf; he’s captured and sold into captivity and suffers PTSD-like symptoms for the rest of his life. He alternately nods or lashes out violently when he’s overcome by the memories, and most of the handlers who work for his owner liken those actions to those of a madman. Once the Gravedigger breaks free of captivity, he’s known for killing people and then burying them in the gentle way that elephants do (hence his name).
Meanwhile, Manu loses his cousin to the Gravedigger and fears he may lose his brother as well. Jayan is an excellent shot and is drawn to the money that poaching brings in. Without that money, his wife, brother, and mother would live in terrible poverty; there are few other options for the farmers in their area. HIs wife, Leela, is horrified by the violence of elephant poaching. She knows her husband was a poacher, but initially believes he’s only killed a handful of elephants in order to put food on the table; she thinks that he’s now put his poaching past behind him and has dedicated to living on the right side of the law. When she begins to suspect that Jayan is getting back in the business, she insists that Manu tries to intervene and change his brother’s mind.
The last group of people the book focuses on are Emma and Teddy, best friends and American filmmakers who have come to South India to film elephant rescues. Emma begins an affair with Ravi, the veterinarian they’re there to film, which throws the ethics of their filmmaking into question. Through this affair she also gets to see the fine line between wildlife conservation and government corruption.
It’s a beautiful and devastating book that alternates to a new perspective with each chapter. Though the filmmaker sections sections at times felt a little lacking, but one can empathize with all major parties involved in the story — even, at times, the poachers. But, of course, the elephant’s perspective is the one that will probably haunt me for a while. Included in one of his sections is a bit of folklore about elephants’ transition from mythical winged creatures to their current form as majestic land-bound animals with magnificent tusks. This story carries subtle echoes through the end of the book.
Sobering though it may be, The Tusk that Did the Damage is an outstanding and well-researched book that one can read in a day. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book.
The Tusk that Did the Damage was released today by Knopf. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.