Panicking humans stampede from elephants' flight path

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The Independent Online
AS A LARGE, angry herd of elephants bedded down in a West Bengal teak forest last night, residents of the shanty towns around Calcutta must have breathed a sigh of relief.

In the city, saffron-robed Hindu priests prayed to appease Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of luck, while at the forest's edge villagers lit fires, in case the elephants should charge out during the night and wreak more havoc.

The 50 elephants were a long way from home. Their week-long, 150-mile stampede across India had brought them uncomfortably close to the West Bengal capital, home to 10 million people. Driven from the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary by forest fires last Monday, the herd set off across country, and soon it was humans who were stampeding.

Elephants hold a somewhat privileged position in India, where killing one is illegal unless forest officials declare the animal mad. But this did not prevent thousands of farmers attacking the herd with stones, spears and bows and arrows, leaving them bruised, bewildered and bad-tempered. They rampaged through some villages, trampling at least six people to death. Small groups of India's 22,000 wild elephants have left their native forests before, but this is the first time so many have crossed hundreds of villages.

Finally last night, hundreds of drummers drove the herd into the teak forest, followed by wildlife officials armed with tranquilliser darts in case the elephants' nerves snapped.

'Our latest information is that they are not heading towards Calcutta,' said Banamali Roy, West Bengal's Forests and Environment Minister. 'But things may change; one instigation by angry villagers can force them to change course.'

The West Bengal authorities have asked residents of at least a dozen villages to evacuate homes in the path the animals may take back to the park. 'We can only pray that the elephants continue their present course,' Mr Roy said.

After a taste of life outside, the hapless elephants must be praying to get back to their sanctuary.