When a herd of wild elephants rampaged through a school kitchen in India's West Bengal state, gobbling up rice and lentils, seven-year-old Suman Bera and classmates were left without lunch -- and lessons.
KOLKATA, India -- When a herd of wild elephants rampaged through a school kitchen in India's West Bengal state, gobbling up rice and lentils, seven-year-old Suman Bera and classmates were left without lunch -- and lessons.
The animals left a trail of destruction in their search for food, forcing officials to cancel classes.
As forest habitat is felled by a growing population in need of more land for homes and farms, India's remaining elephant population and its people are coming into conflict, causing a jumbo-sized headache for rural officials and wildlife activists.
"It's a matter of survival for both man and animal," said Animesh Bose, head of the West Bengal-based Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation.
"Elephants are migratory animals and move from one forest to the other through corridors which have often been lost due to villages that have sprung up in the last few decades," Bose said.
Home to 50,000 wild Asian elephants a century ago, just 26,400 elephants were roaming India's national parks and forests in 2002. Worse, the first comprehensive elephant census published in 2005 showed a steep drop in numbers to just 21,300 elephants.
Late last year, the environment ministry's Forest Survey of India reported a steady depletion of forest land in 11 major wildlife reserves since 1997.
According to the survey, only 20 percent of India's landmass is forested and just 120,000 sq km (46,340 sq miles) -- less than four percent of the country -- of that is suitable for elephants.
Officials have set a target of 33 percent forest cover by 2012 through extensive reforestation programmes, but wildlife activists have derided the plans as almost impossible to achieve.
"With rampant habitat destruction the herd is now fragmented and groups are becoming smaller in size ... as a result they are not breeding as we hoped they would, which is a major worry," said Shakti Ranjan Banerjee, West Bengal secretary of WWF-India.
Most of India's elephants live in protected reserves in fourteen states from north to south but even these are under pressure from human encroachment and infrastructure development.
The Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based pressure group, says in 2006 three million people were living in protected areas, including sanctuaries, parks and reserves.
India has 2.4 percent of the world's land but supports nearly 16 percent of the earth's people. Its population grew by over 20 percent between 1991 and 2001, and now tops one billion people.
ELEPHANTS KILLED BY TRAINS
For centuries, elephants have been chased and shot by hunters and poachers in search of trophies or precious ivory, but of late more prosaic deaths have awaited them: mowed down by speeding trains or electrocuted by fences put round villages and crops.
Trains travelling along a single 160 km (100 mile)-long track stretching from the West Bengal town of Siliguri to the border with Bhutan, built in 2003, killed five elephants last year.
"The railway track has bisected the entire elephant corridor and cuts through four sanctuaries," said Sheelwant Patel, a top forest department official.
Wildlife officials say elephants are faring a little better in southern states like Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. But even here numbers have fallen -- from 12,750 in 2002 to 12,036 three years later.
Activists fear the decline may be more rapid than official figures suggest, just as authorities were shown last year to have routinely overestimated India's population of threatened tigers.
"Despite government efforts, elephant conservation has not been given serious thought," said the WWF's Banerjee. "The largest habitat of the Asian elephant in India will vanish in another 10-15 years it seems."
Wildlife activists have complained the fragile ecosystem will be under even greater pressure following recent legislation giving land ownership and resource use rights to millions of poor forest dwellers.
But officials are optimistic they can boost the elephant population, despite scepticism by conservationists.
"We don't expect results overnight," said Manindra Biswas, a senior forest department official in West Bengal. "But the positive effects will surely be felt in the near future as we are trying to mitigate animal-man conflict and habitat loss."
Poaching has gone down since the international ban on ivory trade in 1990, but the secret trade still flourishes in southern and northern India, wildlife activists say.
An infamous forest bandit, Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, shot dead by police in 2004, was widely thought to have slaughtered hundreds of elephants in southern India as he amassed a fortune from a jungle empire built on ivory and sandalwood smuggling.
To turn around the elephants' fortunes, officials have come up with some novel ideas.
In the eastern tiger reserve of Buxa in West Bengal, special rope fences coated with a stinking paste of chilli powder and motor oil are being used to ward elephants off land used for cultivation by villagers.
But a lasting victory will only be won once reserves and other forest areas get real protection from man's activities.
"India's population explosion and the unwillingness of people on the ground to implement the laws have left elephants high and dry," Banerjee of WWF said.