In an article entitled “How many species are there on earth?” in the September 16, 1988, issue of the journal Science, the eminent and influential scientist Robert May (now Lord May) observed, almost with a tinge of regret, that the Order Proboscidea topped the list of the number of articles per species of various animal groups that were published annually during 1978–1987. The message of his article was that the study of the vast diversity of smaller-size organisms was being neglected in favor of the larger vertebrates. The recent genetic evidence for two species of African elephants, and the claims of a possible third or even fourth species of African elephant, would alter the articlesto-species ratio, but the Proboscidea would still maintain its top slot. Actually, I think that the defection of the few biologists who study creatures such as elephants and tigers to disciplines such as the classification of beetles would make little difference to our knowledge of beetles but considerably erode our understanding of elephants and tigers, creatures that could act as flagships in conserving beetles and the diversity of our tropical forests.
During the past 20-odd years, my own work as well as that of my research group has actually extended beyond elephants to communities of small and large mammals, rain forest birds, parasites, tropical plants, and even paleoclimate. Yet, in some strange fashion the elephant has been the thread connecting many of these diverse themes—for example, the interaction between elephants and tropical plants, parasite loads in relation to mate choice, and the use of stable carbon isotopes in studying the elephant's feeding habits as well as in reconstructing past climate change. This echoes Wendy O'Flaherty's observations of the elephant-headed god: “One can start from Ganesa and work from there in an unbroken line to almost any aspect of Indian culture. ”
Some years ago I realized that, in spite of the considerable numbers of articles and books on elephants, there was hardly any volume that provided a broad synthesis of their biology within the framework of modern evolutionary theory. Most of the books either pertained to individual studies of African or Asian elephant populations or were pictorial books (usually with pictures of wild African elephants and captive Asian elephants). This is why I embarked upon this project. I have also tried to provide a better balance between studies of Asian and African elephants than is available in most other volumes. When I began writing this book I had not even planned for a section on the molecular genetics of elephants, as hardly anything was known of this subject; with the rush of articles in recent years this section had to be added. Very soon this part will certainly become hopelessly outdated.