'Osama' the serial killer elephant is shot dead - or is he?

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A killer elephant nick-named "Osama bin Laden" by Indian villagers because of a two-year reign of terror in which 27 people were killed, has been shot dead at a tea plantation, according to government officials.

The bull, who was nine feet tall, destroyed hundreds of homes in the north-eastern state of Assam before he was reported to have been shot on Saturday. Up to 14 people were killed by the tuskless animal in the past month alone. The latest victim, a woman, died on Wednesday.

But it now appears that the elephant that was shot may not be Osama.

Last week the state assembly adopted a shoot-to-kill directive for forestry officials, with a deadline set for 31 December. A forestry official said the elephant had been shot on the outskirts of Behali town, some 90 miles north-west of Guwahati, Assam's main city. He said villagers had identified the animal as Osama because it had no tusks.

Previous efforts to hunt it were thwarted when the elephant, which is believed to be aged between 45 and 50 years old, evaded hunters by hiding in dense forests and tea estates.

Ranjit Dutta, an MP from Behali, said: "The elephant has been killing people and destroying houses in villages in my constituency. He was not afraid of fire and even firecrackers."

Dipen Phukan, a licensed hunter, was put on the elephant's trail last Friday, armed with a .400 bore rifle. He shot the animal near the Behali forest reserve in northern Assam, but experts claim the elephant he killed was probably not Osama, merely a lookalike.

Kushal Sharma, from the College of Veterinary Science in Gauhati, said: "Probably this was not the elephant they wanted to kill. It was found in a different habitat more than 80km [50 miles] away from his usual place where he moves around."

Wildlife activists were angered when forestry officials allegedly buried the animal without verifying the footprints, dimensions and other marks which would have identified it.

"They have killed an innocent elephant. It is a shame on the part of the forest officials in Assam," Soumyadeep Dutta, a wildlife conservationist, told Reuters.

Animal conservation groups are now fearful of revenge attacks by other elephants. On Saturday, several thatched houses were destroyed by a group of elephants in the area where Osama was said to have been killed.

The destruction of elephants' natural habitats in north-eastern India has meant that conflicts between the animals and humans have become more frequent in recent years, with the elephants forced to forage farther for food, culminating in increased contact with people.

In the past five years, more than 250 people have been killed in Assam state by elephants. Villagers have killed 268 elephants during the same period.

The state is estimated to be home to about 5,300 Asian elephants, which are normally a protected species in India. But conservationists say the population has declined rapidly due to a loss of the animals' habitat as a direct result of human encroachment in forest areas.