Rogue elephant terrorises villagers in India

Residents of an Indian village say recent attacks are the work of a single rogue male elephant that has been terrorising the area - devouring crops, destroying buildings and killing anyone who gets in his way.

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NEW DELHI // One night in early November, a scooter came round a sharp bend on a mountain road near the city of Rishikesh and straight into the path of a huge male elephant, its long tusks shining in the moonlight.

The driver swerved to avoid the pachyderm, skidding along the ground and throwing his passenger, 42-year-old Om Prakash Rana, off the back of the bike.

As the driver turned to escape, he saw the elephant wrap its trunk around Rana, smash him into the ground and trample him underfoot.

Tucked amid the foothills of the Himalayas in the state of Uttarakhand, the villages around Rishikesh have lost six people to elephant attacks in the past three months.

Residents say the attacks are the work of a single rogue male that has been terrorising the area - devouring crops, destroying buildings and killing anyone who gets in his way.

Rana's death drew particular attention because he worked as a driver for a local politician.

After that, Uttarakhand's chief wildlife officer ordered that the rogue elephant be killed, and put out a call for hunters.

But last-minute intervention by People For Animals (PFA), a wildlife society in Delhi, brought a stay of execution and forced the wildlife department to try to relocate the beast into a more remote area.

"In the past, they would just gun down the elephant within hours of it being labelled a man-eater," said Gauri Maulekhi, PFA's Uttarakhand representative. "This time, they are putting some effort in. This could set a precedent for future cases."

But for a state defined by its incredible array of wildlife, which includes leopards, black bears, tigers and an estimated 1,300 Asian elephants, Uttarakhand's forest department is surprisingly ill-prepared for this sort of task.

Twice in the past 10 days, a forest department team was able to lure the elephant to a clearing where three domesticated females from nearby Corbett National Park had been put as bait, garnished with plenty of sugar cane.

On both occasions, the vets fired a tranquilliser dart into their target, only to watch him run off into the forest and pass out where the cranes and flatbed truck could not reach him.

"He's very clever," said Naresh Kumar, a zoologist in Uttar Pradesh, who has been following the case - sleeping in his car for the past two weeks in the field next to the three females, waiting for the tusker to return.

He has seen the elephant three times and said there was no sign of madness.

"The people are angry. They want him dead. But the elephants consider this their territory. They have been coming here for hundreds of years and they have a long memory. Do you know what people do to these elephants when they come in a village? They throw burning coals or boiling water - even sulphuric acid. Is it any wonder they get angry?"

This is the vicious cycle authorities are trapped in.

Uttarakhand's 11 elephant corridors have been gradually eroded by the growing human population.

Illegal incursions into the reserve forest for wood and timber lead to more and more clashes with elephants and other animals, as do the increasingly busy roads and railway lines that dissect their ancient pathways.

The inevitable deaths lead to demands for extermination.

"The habitat is shrinking but people don't care," said Srikant Chandola, a former chief wildlife officer. "As soon as someone is killed, the outcry is terrible. They want the elephant killed immediately."

The population in this remote region has doubled to more than 10 million in the past 40 years.

Industrial development, centrally funded construction near the Chinese border and a booming tourist trade have attracted an influx of workers.

"The government is too weak-willed and too vote-conscious to stop the villagers encroaching on the reserve forests," said Ms Maulekhi.

The scar along her forehead, delivered by a group of men who burst into her home a month ago, show how unpopular wildlife defenders can become in this part of the world.

Ms Maulekhi said the forest department has failed to build the expertise needed to deal with these problems, despite a 8.8 billion rupee (Dh625 million) budget for forest protection.

Data acquired by People For Animals this year found the forest department had only a third of its sanctioned number of guards and rangers.

"They supposedly have all this money but they haven't hired a new ranger since 1989," said Ms Maulekhi. "They have no equipment, no vehicles. It's foolish to think they can operate with a few guys on foot with some batons."

The current chief wildlife officer, SS Sharma, admitted they were short-staffed but said the vacancies were being filled.

He is hopeful a team of international elephant experts, who are visiting Uttarakhand this weekend, will help them find long-term solutions to keep elephants and humans out of each other's way.

But for now, his attention is on capturing the rogue animal.

"If we cannot transport him next time, we will build a wooden cage around him and try to normalise his behaviour," he said.

Back at the clearing, the animal was nowhere to be seen. The females seemed happy about this.

"For days, the females didn't sleep lying down because they were scared of him," said Mr Kumar, sitting by his campfire. "Now they are calm, so he may have left the area. But I will not leave until I'm sure he is safe."