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Turf Wars Escalate Between People And Elephants In India Northeast

Indian woman Kanchandevi Panday grieves over the dead body of Laxmi a 25 year-old female elephant as she lies on a bed of hay in the compound of a veterinary hospital in Mumbai, 22 September 2006. Laxmi, one of 15 licensed elephants employed for religious ceremonies and processions in Mumbai, died early 22 September,after breaking her leg and suffering spinal injuries following a collision with a water tanker driven by an alleged drunk. Wildlife groups have called for a ban on elephants in the steamy city of 18 million people where melting tarmac roads infect their feet and risk injury from vehicles that clog the streets. Photo courtesy of Sebastian D'souza and AFP.
by Zarir Hussain
Guwahati (AFP) Sept 23, 2006
Deadly turf wars between humans and hungry elephants in India's northeast have reached alarming proportions, say experts who plan an emergency meeting next week to tackle the problem. Elephants have killed 239 people in Assam state in the past five years while 265 elephants have died during the same period, said a wildlife department report released Friday ahead of the meeting. The report gave no comparative figures.

It said shrinking forests and encroachment on elephant territory by people have forced the animals to stray from their habitats into human settlements in the quest of food.

"The battle between humans and elephants is very serious," said Assam's chief wildlife warden M.C. Malakar.

The meeting, to be held at the famous Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary in Assam, is aimed at easing the conflict.

Conservationists, wildlife wardens and village leaders will take part in the meeting.

"Pachyderm herds are straying out of their habitats into human settlements looking for food," said Malakar in Guwahati, the state's main city.

Satellite imagery shows between 1996 and 2000 villagers encroached on some 280,000 hectares (691,880 acres) of thick forest in Assam, authorities say.

The attitude of people toward the elephants has become less tolerant as the pachyderms have become an increasing problem for villagers, officials say.

Villagers often poison the marauding elephants while in the past they drove them away by beating drums or bursting firecrackers, officials said.

In recent months, herds of wild elephants have been wreaking havoc in several parts of Assam after straying into settlements and drinking liquor brewed from fermented rice by villagers.

Assam has India's largest population of Asiatic elephants, estimated at around 5,000.

The report of the growing conflict between humans and wild elephants in the northeast came as animal welfare groups called for an elephant ban in India's financial capital after a 25-year-old pachyderm died Friday after being hit by a water tanker.

Laxmi, one of 15 licensed elephants employed for religious ceremonies and processions in Mumbai, died a day after breaking her leg and suffering spinal injuries when she was struck by the tanker whose driver was allegedly drunk at the wheel.

earlier related report
Call for elephants to leave Mumbai
Mumbai, India (AFP) Sept 21 - Wildlife groups called for an elephant ban in India's financial capital Thursday after a 25-year-old female pachyderm was left paralysed in her second road accident in three years.

Laxmi, one of 15 licensed elephants employed for religious ceremonies and processions in Mumbai, broke her leg and suffered spinal injuries after being hit by a water tanker driven by an alleged drunk.

The stricken animal, also hit three years ago by a bus, was lying helpless at an animal hospital and being moved by crane while waiting the arrival of a portable x-ray machine to assess her injuries. The animal will not be put down.

The tanker driver and the elephant's handler were both arrested, reports said.

The elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha is hugely popular in Mumbai with the animals in great demand for religious ceremonies at temples.

Mahouts, or handlers, can earn thousands of rupees by allowing their elephants to take part in ceremonies and crack coconuts in a symbol of good luck for the future, wildlife workers said.

But they called for a ban on elephants in the steamy city of 18 million people where melting tarmac roads infect their feet and where they constantly risk injury from the vehicles that clog the streets.

Many elephants end up in the suburbs of India's richest city after travelling for months from the northeastern province of Assam with their mahout.

"They shouldn't be kept in Mumbai," said Colonel J.C. Khanna, secretary for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is treating Laxmi.

"They need 1,000 rupees for food and fodder and the mahout cannot always afford that.

"So they go to vegetable markets, they eat fruit, even rice and chapatis and if they were sent back to the wild they might not survive."

Camels, which were used for pleasure rides for tourists, have already been banned in Mumbai after complaints that camel corpses were being found and left unclaimed on the beachfront, said Khanna.

The latest government estimate back in 2002 said there were more than 26,000 wild elephants in India.

earlier related report
Conflict Threatens Rare Asian Mountain Sheep
Munnar India (AFP) Sept 16 - A rare species of mountain sheep could face extinction if it is not given a safe haven from the conflicts tearing apart its natural habitat in central and south Asia, conservationists say. Experts meeting this week in India's southern Kerala state have proposed the creation of a "peace park" for the Marco Polo sheep native to the Pamir mountains, located where Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan meet.

"War kills not only people but destroys animals and habitat. Human and political conflicts destabilize wildlife resources," US zoologist George B. Schaller told AFP at the close of the conference on hooved mammals.

"The conflict in the area will wipe out the Marco Polo sheep."

The sheep -- which number only 6,000, according to Schaller -- are trapped in a chaotic zone that includes Pakistan's lawless tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, where Islamic militants are active.

"A trans-border peace park where China, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet will certainly help the conservation of the Marco Polo sheep," said Schaller, who has been studying the sheep for more than 20 years.

The sheep, which was first described to Europeans in the 13th century by the Italian explorer for which the animal is now named, has long curving ridged horns that can grow several feet.

The head and horns are prized by hunters, with some paying up to 25,000 dollars to snare such trophies.

The 71-year-old Schaller, who has spent almost 50 years exploring Asia, Africa and South America, began working on the idea for a park in the Pamir Mountains in 2002, when he visited Tajikistan for a survey.

According to the expert, research by Tajik biologists showed that there were less than two of the sheep per square kilometer, and in some areas, there were none at all.

Worse, the number of sheep continues to dwindle due to unregulated hunting.

When Schaller visited China in November 2005 to conduct a field study with Aili Kang, a biologist with the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, he found the animal appeared to be better protected there.

In concert with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Schaller is now trying to win backing for a protected area of about 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles) straddling the four borders.

The park would include existing wildlife protection areas, such as the Central Karakoram National Park in northern Pakistan and the Taxkongau Nature Reserve in southwestern China, the society's website says.

"Wild animals do not bear the tag of nationalities. They cross borders for their own reasons," Schaller said.

An ecologist with the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which organized the conference, said he supported the idea of "peace parks" for animals in conflict zones.

"We will start campaigns and seek support of the conservationists, local communities and policy makers to make this a reality," said Marco Festa-Bianchet, who also works for the protection of wild sheep and goats.

Some 100 participants from 15 countries participated in the conference held in the Nilgiri hill resort of Munnar near the Eravikulam National Park, set up for the protection of a hooved mammal known as the Nilgiri Tahr.

According to the New Delhi-based Wild Life Trust of India, the country is home to 18 species of hooved mammals, or mountain ungulates.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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