Despite our differences in size and shape, humans relate so profoundly to elephants. Perhaps it’s their fierce loyalty, their female-forward power structure, long memories or sheer strength. But people who love elephants, really love elephants. And if that’s you, then we have a perfect reading list for you.
Pull up your Goodreads because we’ve got 18 truly amazing books about elephants for you to add to your TBR list.
You can trust me to recommend these books for you. I’m a recovering bookseller, who still loves nothing more than recommending cool books to people. I’m also a long-term volunteer and donor to wildlife conservation causes. And I’m joyfully marrying those two interests together with this list of books on elephants.
9 Fiction Books About Elephants
We’ve split this list evenly between fiction and non-fiction. The following 9 elephant novels cover the gamut, from angry marauding elephants to the work of conservationists, circus and menagerie mahouts and there are even a few elephants at the center of a mystery.
The Tusk That Did the Damage, by Tania James
The storyline of this book is so emblematic of the challenges that face these wild animals, who need space to roam and a modern world wanting that space for its own purposes. While there are plenty of humans populating this book, the lead protagonist (and antagonist) is The Gravedigger.
He was orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition. He breaks out of his bonds and begins wreaking havoc over the countryside, ultimately interacting with a reluctant poacher and an American film-maker. The book touches on themes of conservation, corruption and western hubris. The most astonishing thing about the book is that The Gravedigger is a fully fledged character with something to say about his circumstances.
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
After its release in 2007, this book sold over 10 million copies. So, it’s possible that you’ve already read this book and simply want more books on elephants. But just in case you haven’t yet read Water for Elephants, you should.
The book covers a pair of star crossed lovers who work together in a circus in the 1930’s. Jacob Jankowski is a drifter who has <almost> earned his veterinary degree. When he jumps aboard the circus train, he’s put in charge of the animals. Marlena, the beautiful star of the equestrian act, who is married to a cruel man.
And then there is Rosie, the elephant.
The book has cruelty and kindness in equal measure and it’s an emotional reflection of life as narrated by the 90 year-old Jacob.
Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult
Alice was a scientist researching grief in elephants. And then she simply disappears. The arc of the story follows her 13 year old daughter Jenna as she searches for her mother. Jenna scours Alice’s journals, searches online and even engages a psychic and a detective to help her in her quest.
This book offers a lot for elephant lovers, with its well-researched take on the emotional lives of elephants.
The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter, by Julia Drosten
This book is set in colonial-era Sri Lanka and it follows the life of Phera. She is born to the king’s elephant keeper, which is a prized position in the Kandy court. In a gender bending twist, Phera is raised as son and taught to care for the elephants, something that women were not allowed to do. She grows up to become a very independent and confident young adult and she loves her elephant.
But then the British invade. Their colonial takeover is very brutal, causing Phera’s life to unravel.
If you are keen to learn more about Sri Lanka, here’s a list of books set there.
The Architect’s Apprentice, by Elif Shafak
Hey, it’s not just the King of Kandy (above) who had a menagerie. Apparently so did the Ottoman Sultan in 1540, or at least they did in Shafik’s imaginative adventure. 12 year-old Jahan is tasked with taking care of the Sultan’s animals, including Chota the elephant. Jahan gains a palace education and he ultimately meets the empire’s chief architect. Together, they (and Chota) construct some of the most magnificent buildings in history.
“Busbecq believed there were two blessings in life: books and friends. And that they should be possessed in inverse quantities: many books, but only a handful of friends.”
― Elif Shafak, The Architect’s Apprentice
The Elephant’s Journey, by José Saramago
In 1551, King João III of Portugal gave Archduke Maximilian an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. Saramago has taken this actual historical event and spun it into an epic road trip tale.
Solomon and his manout, Subhro, begin in dismal conditions, in a forgotten corner of the palace grounds. But they are (literally) dusted off and sent on a journey over hill and dale, across the Alps, through Italy and across the Mediterranean before being presented as a gift to the Archduke.
The book’s themes provide a good natured poke at human folly and the stupidity of social constructs,
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, by Vaseem Khan
In this heartwarming series by Khan, Inspector Chopra is supposed to be retired. But he just can’t let go of the work. So, he continues to chase down leads in the case of a drowned boy, which no one else wants to investigate. And Chopra is accompanied by his adorbs, inherited baby elephant.
The book is charming and page-turning, and if you like it, there are 4 more in the series.
White Bone, by Ridley Pearson
If you are a fan of international spy thrillers (and also books about elephants), then this is the read for you. The series (of which there are now 4 books) features Grace Chu, a forensic accountant. and ex-military contractor John Knox.
Chu gets her cover blown while tracking down a million Euro of stolen AIDS vaccines. She becomes embroiled in Kenyan corruption and an elephant poaching scheme run by rogue park rangers. Grace gets abandoned in the bush and sees herself slipping away while Knox rushes to find her.
An Elephant in the Garden, Michael Morpurgo
Most of these elephant books are geared toward adult readers, but The Elephant in the Garden is worth a read, even though it’s a middle school book. During WWII, Lizzie and her mother take on work as zookeepers in Dresden. They soon find themselves very attached to an orphaned elephant named Marlene. With a Allied bombing about to commence, they decamp with Marlene, stashing her in their garden.
This book has all the feels, with struggle, courage, friendship and hope.
“An Elephant in the Garden is a beautifully told and compelling story that transports the reader into war-torn Germany as thousands of refugees struggle for survival during World War II.”
9 Non-Fiction Books on Elephants
The following non-fiction books about elephants feature a mix of professional conservationist/scientists and empathetic and enthusiastic amateurs. All of them are surprised and delighted by the elephants that they meet and the books offer tales of love and loyalty.
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence
Lawrence Anthony ran the private Thula Thula game reserve in South Africa. He was known as a bold conservationist, famously organizing the rescue of the Bagdad Zoo during the American invasion of 2003. He also had a strong personal interest in the African Elephant.
The Elephant Whisperer covers his efforts to rehabilitate a herd of rogue elephants. They arrived at Thula Thula traumatized and very angry, which is a lethal condition for both the elephants and any human in their path. He worked hard to teach them to trust again. And in return, they taught him about loyalty.
As a side note, it is said that after Anthony died in 2012, a group of the wild elephants sat vigil at his home for two days. Because this is why we love elephants, isn’t it?
An Elephant in My Kitchen: What the Herd Taught Me About Love, Courage and Survival, by Françoise Malby-Anthony, Katja Willemsen
This follow-up to The Elephant Whisperer is told from the point of view of Lawrence Anthony’s wife, Françoise. After his death, she was left to run the reserve on her own, even though she knew very little about conservation. Money was tight, poachers were taking advantage and one of their elephants was charging the guests.
The book covers Malby-Anthony’s determination to continue her husband’s legacy and expand the conservation work at the reserve.
Elephantoms, by Lyall Watson
Watson was a well-respected South African botonist, zoologist and biologist. He was a prolific writer on nature, wildlife and world cultures.
In Elephantoms, he relates his first encounter with an elephant and how that led him on an obsessive quest to understand them. The book is a memoir, with stories about Watson’s engagement with elephants and the wider natural world. But there is also a lot of practical information on the natural history of elephants, touching upon their unique sensory powers and survival abilities.
“Watson writes like a poet, with emotion coloring his memories.”
Mumby is an assistant professor working in the Applied Behavioral and Ecology Conservation lab at the University of Hong Kong. She has devoted herself to studying elephant behavior, environmental stressors and elephant-human interactions.
In the book, she discusses how she came to love elephants, what it means to be an elephant scientist, and she shares her conservation work. The prose is more “sciencey” than some of the other books on elephants listed here, making it a good fit for you science geeks out there.
Elephant Dawn, by Sharon Pincott
Pincott ditched her cushy corporate life and packed her idealism for a life in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. She idealistically worked on elephant conservation and anti-poaching efforts at a time of serious political and economic turmoil in Zim. I have personally visited Hwange and support the Painted Dog Conservation project there. I can tell you first hand that poaching is a real problem in that park, especially during the early 2000’s when Pincott was working there.
“The power of human friendships turned out to be just as important as her elephant friendships in getting her through the worst of times which surfaced constantly…It’s a brave book.”
Elephant Memories, by Cynthia Moss
Moss is is an American ethologist, conservationist and wildlife researcher. She worked in Kenya’s Amboseli region and studied elephants there for over 27 years. In the book, she chronicles some specific elephant families led by matriarchs Teresia, Slit Ear, Torn Ear, Tania, and Tuskless.
Moss’s stories describe the lives of these elephants, covering how they eat, sleep, play, nurture their young, and how dominance and socialization plays out in their groups.
“…the wild elephants she follows in Amboseli in Kenya broke my heart, made me scream with joy, and above all opened my eyes to these unbelievable creatures in ways I never thought possible.”
Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Helfer
This is like a true to life (but also semi-fictionalized) version of Water for Elephants. Bram and Mosie (the elephant) are raised together in a small German town. The book follows them on a global adventure that includes an apprenticeship with Indian mahout elephant trainers and circus stardom in 1940s New York City.
“Shipwrecks, fires, poisoning, terrorist revolutionary uprisings, teak forests, spiritualism, and an amazing love story between one man and his elephant!”
Travels on My Elephant, Mark Shand
Some people explore India on one of their amazing luxury trains. But Shand did it the hard way, traveling over 800 miles on a 30-year old elephant named Tara. He traveled with her from the Bay of Bengal to the elephant bazaar at Sonepur, hoping to find her a good home.
Along the way, he has both adventures and misadventures. And what starts out as a rich guy’s lark, turns into a moving love story between a man and his elephant.
“Loyal, cantankerous, mischievous and obstinate. Tara will live in the reader’s memory long after the book has been closed.”
A Cowboy and His Elephant, by Malcolm Macpherson
This is the story of the relationshop between Bob Norris, a rugged Marlboro Man model and Colorado cowboy, and Amy who is an orphaned African elephant. The tragic story of how she came to be a resident of the American West is only part of the story. But the book also covers how Bob used his deep empathy to befriend and gain the trust of Amy, ultimately helping her with her life’s transitions.
Some Resources on Elephant Conservation
If you would like to learn more about elephant conservation, you would be hard pressed to find a better organization than Save the Elephants. Ian Douglas-Hamilton is the premier elephant conservationist and his team in Kenya lead efforts for not only their HQ in Kenya’s Samburu Reserve, but around the world.
They have partnered with Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) to develop an Elephant Crisis Fund, which has funded 348 projects throughout Africa and Asia. I personally donate time and money to WCN and can attest to both their ethics and their effectiveness.
If you are a traveler, I would strongly discourage you from participating in tourism that involves washing, walking or riding elephants. Many of these programs have very fraught ethics and it’s difficult to tell the good from the bad.
And finally, if you are looking for a truly unique gift, consider buying something from Poo Poo Paper. They make surprisingly lovely notebooks, notecards, and craft paper from elephant, cow and donkey poo. Hey…it’s sustainable!
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