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Elephants Threatened as Humans Share Their Habitats - 2002-06-26

In Eastern India, forest officials have shot dead a wild elephant which crushed to death 13 people on the Indo-Nepal border. Experts said the incident highlights a growing conflict between man and animal due to the steady loss of wildlife habitat in the country.

The female elephant started its rampage three days ago, Sunday, in a tiny village near a tea garden in the hilly Darjeeling district of West Bengal state. The district lies on a route frequently used by elephants to travel between India and Nepal in search of food.

The elephant trampled seven people to death before entering Nepal, where it killed another three people. It then reentered Indian territory to claim three more lives.

After a two-day hunt in the Darjeeling jungles, a forest department marksman fired five rounds to kill the animal Tuesday.

Sheelvant Patel, Forest Conservator in Darjeeling district, said such problems occur because about 200 elephants in the area move constantly through a region where forest patches are interspersed with human settlements.

"In this porous forest, the periphery of the forest area is very high, and since densely populated localities are inbetween the patches of the forest, particularly southern side of the river Balasan, it creates a lots of problem there," Mr. Patel said.

Wildlife experts said animal habitat in India is under severe pressure from the country's growing population, which has steadily encroached into forests to cultivate more land. Mr. Patel said this forces animals such as elephants to step out of jungles in search of sustenance.

"Occasionally there are raids of crops, particularly of maize and paddy, and during those raids occasionally some people are killed, but these are not intentional killings," Mr. Patel said.

Forest officials said they have begun organizing voluntary village groups to drive elephants who stray into villages back into the jungles with the help of forest and police officials. The task is not difficult because a popular Hindu god has an elephant head, and hence most Indians treat the animal with affection.

Ashok Kumar at the Wildlife Trust of India, has done extensive work on elephant conservation. He said greater efforts must be made to maintain a distance between elephants and villagers to minimize the growing conflict between the two.

"We have to obtain support of people for wildlife conservation. If large number of people are killed, this trust and love and affection historically which has existed [for elephants] in India is going to go. If in some parts of India, when substanial deaths take place, crops are destroyed, huts are destroyed, then this reverence or love cannot last very much longer," Mr. Kumar said.

But in order to ensure this, he said dozens of human settlements that have encroached into forest areas would have to be relocated, not an easy task in a densely-populated country. India is home to about 30,000 animals, a species that conservationsists say is at risk across the world.