New Welsh Review

The Last Giants: The Rise and Fall of the African Elephant

Amy Aed reviews the non-fictional novel The Last Giants that educates on the intelligence of and injustice towards African elephants

PUBLISHED ON: 17/04/20


TAGS: Africa, Kenya, animals, emotional, environment, injustice, intelligent animals, non-fiction

PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

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The Last Giants is a beautiful, heartbreaking, and educational book by Levison Wood, a man who is often regarded as one of the best explorers of the Twenty-first Century. In this book, we find out more about the psychological and emotional aspects of African elephants, along with the reasons why they are dying out so rapidly and what we can do to stop it. It is full of interesting stories, personal experiences, and horrifying facts, all blended together by Wood’s effortless writing and clear love for these animals.

Wood talks a lot about the roles that males and females play in elephant society, making it glaringly obvious just how similar to humans they are. Matriarchs are everything within the society, being the key to the survival of the rest of the species. They are the ones responsible for making the decisions for the rest of the herd, educating young elephants on how to take care of the young, which males to avoid, and how to entice a mate with a walk called ‘oestrus’. They pass down knowledge about predators, the best places to get water in a drought, and where to take the young on play dates, so that they grow up to be social, intelligent, well-integrated members of society.

Elephants are known for being intelligent – they have good cognitive skills and can recognise different groups of people just by their scent and sound. Wood talks about one particular experiment where the Amboseli elephants were presented with red cloths worn either by a Maasai warrior (who occasionally spear elephants) and a local Kamba man, and they could determine the difference between the two people by their smell, rapidly fleeing the area and heading to one of greater cover when presented with cloths from the Maasai. Similarly, they can recognise people by sound, and when recordings of these two groups of people speaking in their native language were played around the elephants, their response was heightened when listening to Maasai men talking. This reaction was specific to the age and sex of the warrior, with far less fear shown towards woman and boys than adult men.

Wood talks about an experience he had when he was watching two males play fighting in Kenya and noticed that one of the bulls was crippled. In response, the other bull had gone down on his knees to play, staying like that for the duration of the game – literally to level the field. Elephants have a remarkably high level of empathy, and when one of their family members becomes weak or frail, they will do everything within their power to take care of them as best they can.

The main reasons that elephants are dying out so rapidly is due to heavy poaching for ivory, loss of habitat, conflict with people over land use, and manipulation of populations by humans. As the world’s human population has doubled in the last fifty years, and more than trebled in Africa, one of the biggest threats to habitat is the encroachment of human societies. Africa’s population will double again in the next thirty years, and it will soar to four-point-four billion people by the end of the century. By contrast, the population of African elephants has fallen by more than ninety percent in just over a hundred years.

The Last Giants: The Rise and Fall of the African Elephant is the sort of book that leaves you feeling haunted, vividly aware of the injustices prevalent in the animal kingdom, and shocked that we could have allowed this to happen. This is a horrifying read, pointing out the undeniable fact that humans are to blame for this elephant species’ mass demise.

‘I say that… the elephant losses we have witnessed can be halted, because I am hopeful. But if it doesn’t happen, the last giants will become extinct in the very near future. We owe it to the elephants, and ourselves, not to let this happen.’


Amy Aed is one of this season’s Digital Cultural Correspondent in a new partnership with Aberystwyth University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.