It is an unexpected headache for the Indian army, an unlikely embarrassment for the government, and an unwelcome challenge for the railways department.
GUWAHATI, India It is an unexpected headache for the Indian army, an unlikely embarrassment for the government, and an unwelcome challenge for the railways department.
Elephants in India are on the rampage, coming into conflict with humans ever more frequently and ever more dangerously. It is a battle the normally gentle animals seem destined to lose.
In the northeastern Indian state of Assam, elephants have been raiding army depots, eating the military's rations, drinking its liquor, and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
In Bangladesh, stray elephants from India have been terrorizing villagers and destroying farms, roads, and houses, the latest irritant in a testy relationship between the South Asian neighbors. The elephants had strayed after forests in the Indian state of Meghalaya were hastily cleared to build a highway.
Across northern India, train drivers have had to cope with elephant herds, whose traditional migration routes have been bisected by railway tracks.
"Human-elephant conflict is at a peak now," said Dinesh Choudhury, who tracks "rogue" elephants in the forests of Assam and tries to save them from death at the hands of angry villagers. "And elephants will be the loser."
From China to Indonesia, India to Vietnam, Asian elephants are in danger, their habitats shrinking fast and their communities increasingly isolated.
There are thought to be just 35,000 to 50,000 left in the wild, down from more than 100,000 a century ago and compared to 600,000 of their larger and larger-eared African cousins. A subspecies in Borneo numbers little more than 1,000 animals.
As their habitats shrink, ivory trade is also on the rise again. A report prepared for a major U.N. environment meeting in Bangkok that began on Saturday shows more than 4,000 African and Asian elephants are still being killed every year for their tusks.
The animals are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and signatories to the pact are meeting in Bangkok until Oct. 14.
Fragmented Forests, Scattered Herds
The jungles of northeastern India are one of the last significant refuges of the mainland variety, Elephas maximus, but population growth and logging have bitten badly into that refuge.
Protected forests do exist, but many are too small, too poorly protected, and too scattered to support large herds. More and more often, elephants find migration routes blocked by villages, canals, and railway lines.
Herds fragment as animals are killed by trains, fall into canals, or simply stray into worse trouble.
"Villages spring up on elephant corridors," said elephant trainer Kaushik Barua in Assam's biggest city, Guwahati. "The animals leave a path of destruction, people get edgy, and the elephants get poisoned or electrocuted. At the end of the day human life is more precious, but there are ways to have a balance between human beings and elephants."
Like most animals, elephants are also opportunists. As their forests disappear, many are discovering the easy food which humans leave lying around.
Some emerge from the jungle every year to take advantage of the paddy harvest, others have discovered a taste for local liquor and drink everything they can lay their trunks on.
Elephants are revered in India, and the half-man, half-elephant god Ganesh is an important figure in the Hindu pantheon. But gradually the respect for the animals and the taboo against killing them is being worn down by conflict.
"The elephants are showing their expression of protest, but still we don't understand their language," said elephant trainer Bijoyananda Chowdhury. "We are not doing anything for them. In 10 years' time, they will be coming to the cities to beg, and in the process they will get themselves killed."
Poachers and Traders
Poaching to supply illegal markets in countries such as China and Thailand is also eating away at elephant herds. The Wildlife Protection Society of India says 375 elephants were poached in India from 1998 to 2004 and two tons of ivory seized.
"Asian ivory is preferred to African ivory, because it is easier to carve and less brittle," said Khalid Pasha of the protection society. "Poaching has become a much more organized crime."
In southern India, poaching of male tuskers has seriously upset the balance of the sexes, with 30 to 40 females to every male, Pasha said. The normal ratio is one male to four females.
While it is legal to sell a domesticated elephant, it is sometimes easier to capture wild ones illegally and train them from scratch. Calves are still kidnapped to supply temples in southern India, where elephants play an important religious role in festivals, he said.
If nothing changes, "conflict coupled with trade will definitely lead to a devastating problem," Pasha warned.