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)

Suggested Topics
people And here is why...
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
voicesBy the man who has
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga but will not be starring in the new Facebook mini-movies
tvKristen Stewart and Stephenie Meyer will choose female directrs
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Twerking girls: Miley Cyrus's video for 'Wrecking Ball'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Are you looking for part time/ ...

SEN (SLD/PMLD) Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a quailed Teacher ...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Currently looking for teachers ...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?