Elephants draw up battlelines to hold their ground: Villagers' encroachment on their lands is turning the animals into killers, writes Tim McGirk in New Delhi

IN THE battle between man and the wild elephant, the people in the jungle hills of Assam, in north-east India, still talk, with awe and fear, about the crazed bull elephant that first gored and trampled a man to death and then lumbered on to the railway track to charge a speeding train.

'This elephant went mad in a way that I'd never seen before,' said Billy Singh, who manages a vast tea garden in the Himalayan foothills often invaded by wild elephant herds. 'The tusker didn't just trample the man. It tore him to pieces in a rage. Nearly devoured him.'

And why did the elephant attack the oncoming train? Mr Singh is not sure. 'Was it suicide? I don't know. All I know is that the tusker went crazy. It had had enough.'

India abounds with plenty of Kiplingesque stories of man's confrontation with errant pachyderms. But behind the amusing folktales lies a tragedy: elephants attack people because, often, in desperation and fury, they are driven to do it. The country's wild-elephant population - 18,000 and falling fast - is being destroyed by poachers and farmers clearing the jungle and grassland where elephants have roamed for millennia.

Every year more than 250 Indians are killed by rogue elephants. Some people are unlucky enough to stumble upon a bull in musth, a periodic state of sexual frenzy that turns the male elephant mean. Some elephants become killers after being wounded by poachers. But most often, an elephant will fight to defend its verdant domain against human intruders.

Vivek Menon, a conservationist with Traffick-India, an offshoot of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, which fights against the ivory trade, said: 'People get killed when they encroach into the elephants' terrain and migratory routes. The result is not a pretty sight.'

Large swaths of parkland have been set aside for elephants by the Indian government in the states of Assam and West Bengal in the north-east, Kerala and Karnataka in the southern hill region, and in the Himalayan foothills of Uttar Pradesh. As pressure on land increases, though, elephant habitats over the past 15 years have shrunk by up to 36 per cent around the country, according to Indian conservation experts. Many impoverished villagers living on the edge of these wildlife reserves have little sympathy for the elephant which, in a few minutes, can flatten their cornfields.

In Assam's Darang district, near the Bhutanese border, farmers finally decided to retaliate against an elephant herd that was in the habit of rampaging through their village, destroying crops and bamboo huts, and then disappearing. Last week, the villagers struck. Assam wildlife officials said the villagers poisoned eight elephants.

India launched Project Elephant in 1991 to save the Asiatic Elephus Maximus from extinction, but so far, the animals are dwindling in number. Poachers thrive, even though only the male elephant has tusks. In the African species, both the male and female pachyderms have ivory. Indian poachers, on paper at least, face stiff fines and three-year jail sentences. But as Mr Menon explained: 'Most of the time, the poachers are never caught. And even when they are, nothing happens. There hasn't been a single conviction to date.'

In the Indian elephant, man faces a fine adversary. An elephant's memory is as good as the old proverb says; an elephant is capable of revenge and has deep feelings of kinship, often mourning the death of a mate. Elephants are also smart; near Mr Singh's tea garden, elephants can now sniff out the barrels of illegal moonshine that villagers hide in the forests. 'There was one elephant that drank about three barrels of the stuff and immediately keeled over, dead drunk.'

A lorry driver going past a wildlife park in Assam several years ago made the mistake of stopping to give some bananas to a wild elephant. For several weeks afterwards, every time the elephants saw a lorry coming, they barricaded the road and would only let the driver through in exchange for bananas or sugar cane.

(Photograph omitted)