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Stomping Grounds
India's elephants are squeezed for living space, stressed by development, and growing increasingly violent. So are its people. A report from ground zero on the spreading conflict between one of the world's last great elephant populations and the people who share their habitat. By Paul Kvinta

Photo: an elephant
LAST REDOUBT: India's northeastern Assam state is home to some 5,000 wild elephants. But illegal settlements have forced elephants into the surrounding farmland—often with deadly results. Domesticated elephants like this one are called kunkies.

Despite its tremendous size, the elephant was stealthy, and Lasman Bumiz struggled to see him. It was after sunset, and in the shadowy torchlight, the ten-foot tusker possessed the seemingly magical and decidedly unnerving ability to appear and disappear suddenly.

One moment he was in front of Bumiz, the next he was behind him. Bumiz was a small man, not five feet tall, but if he didn't act soon, the elephant would materialize inside the residential compound nearby, and it would be too late. So the villager sucked up his courage and did what he'd done all week—he raised his torch high into the air, unleashed a blood-chilling shriek, and rushed the animal dead-on. Bumiz drew confidence from his friends, the men sprinting alongside him, swinging axes and machetes, banging empty cooking oil tins, whooping louder than partisan lunatics at an India-Pakistan cricket match. He knew that they were all in this together, that they somehow had to repel this superior invading force. But in a split second the tusker wheeled about and lunged at them, a terrifying feint that scattered the men like billiard balls and sent Bumiz backpedaling into the darkness, scared and confused. What scared him the most, actually, what petrified him, was that he was confronting not a mighty animal, but something much greater. Bumiz was at war with a god.

All week the residents of Phulaguri, a rice-farming village in India's northeastern state of Assam, had debated how many elephants were laying nightly siege to their community. Some guessed more than a hundred. Others figured 60 or 70. The pandemonium each night made counting impossible. What the villagers did know was that five homes had been reduced to dusty heaps of thatch and mud and that the Assam Forest Department had failed to rescue them. It was no secret, of course, what two things the migrating elephants wanted from Phulaguri: the recently harvested rice stalks—known as "paddy"—that people stored in conical stacks in their courtyards, and the paint-peeling moonshine that some of them brewed from fermented rice. For a stiff drink, elephants would blast through walls.

Desperate for solutions, someone suggested making a puja to Lord Ganesha. In the crowded Hindu pantheon, Ganesha is the well-loved "remover of obstacles," and he would certainly save them. So the villagers offered up bananas, oranges, and sliced coconut, touched their foreheads to the earth, and prayed for relief from this unfathomable plague. The curious fact that Ganesha has the head of an elephant struck no one as particularly ironic. Most residents made little distinction between actual elephants and Ganesha himself.

But the puja failed to yield the desired results, and on December 28 Bumiz and his neighbors found themselves battling the tusker. At some point amid the chaos, Bumiz sprinted ahead into a bamboo patch, a flanking maneuver nobody noticed. Later, others would only shrug when speculating as to why he had chosen this ill-advised tactic. When the tusker finally turned and bolted, the group gave chase, and that's when they found Bumiz. He was pressed deep into the mud beyond the bamboo, his teeth shattered, his eyes glazed over. The elephant had stampeded right over him. Somehow, he was still alive, and he requested water. "There was no blood," says Jimmy Gothorp, the local schoolteacher. "I think his back was broken." They loaded him into a truck, where he died en route to the hospital.

Two days later, in the Bumizes' courtyard, the dead man's four-year-old son is bawling, and his pregnant wife is tugging my arm and repeating, trance-like, "What will I do now? What will I do now?" I ask some gathered neighbors why the government shouldn't simply kill Assam's wild elephants. "No, no!" the group insists. "The elephant is still God," one man says. "Even if an elephant destroys our paddy, destroys our houses, kills our people, we must respect him as a god." They believed that because God had taken Bumiz's soul directly, they didn't need to burn his body in the Hindu tradition, a process that releases the soul. Instead, they buried him. Some villagers claimed that the tusker had returned to pay respects, that they'd seen him kneeling at Bumiz's grave. Gothorp takes me to the grave and points to an indentation in the dirt. "There," he says. "They believe Ganesha knelt right there."

I arrived in Assam 12 days earlier, curious about something called "human-elephant conflict," a concept that to Western ears sounds like late-night comedy material. But Christy Williams assures me it's no joke, and when we pull into a village called Da Parbatia at the start of a two-week itinerary, nobody here is laughing. On the contrary, all hell is breaking loose. "There's no organization here," grumbles Williams, pressing his way past overwrought villagers. "Someone could get killed." As director of the World Wildlife Fund's Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy, Williams has witnessed elephant drives before. He has even provided fuel and firecrackers to local officials of the Assam Forest Department for this one. But what we see startles him.

Before us, a crush of seething villagers jostles at the edge of a thicket, ignoring two policemen attempting crowd control. Each time an elephant head pokes warily out of the trees, the mob surges forward, howling and cursing, banging cookware and launching firecrackers. Behind us, something resembling a block party is unfolding, with hundreds of curious onlookers from neighboring villages clogging the main road. We're standing in what was once someone's grove of banana trees, but the trees have been trampled into kindling, thanks to the unwanted visitors hiding in the thicket. Suddenly, from beyond the vegetation, explosions rip the air, and a herd of 18 elephants crashes out of the bush and rumbles across the paddy field to our right. People run screaming in every direction. On the heels of the herd are three domestic elephants ridden by several men with sticks and smoking guns. It's the Forest Department, and they chase the herd to the other side of the field, where they are met by another scrum of fist-shaking villagers. "Great," groans Williams. "They're shifting the problem from one village to the next. That makes it worse."

We elbow our way to the road for a better view. Gazing south over the open paddy fields, we watch the fleeing herd as it zigzags toward the Brahmaputra River, stopping at angry village after angry village. Williams sighs. He's a tall man, a 34-year-old Tamil from South India, eloquent and self-assured, but right now he's frustrated. "We're fighting a rear guard action," he admits, between thunderous blasts of walnut-size firecrackers. Today's conflict is merely a symptom of a greater problem, he says, one driven by habitat loss. Asian elephants are migratory animals, he explains, forest dwellers that require tremendous space. At the time of the Pharaohs, herds were found from Iraq to China, inhabiting a continuous forest belt that extended over five million square miles. Today, just 5 percent of that habitat remains. As Asia's skyrocketing human population forces herds from their last forest redoubts, the result isn't surprising—a brutal death match between man and beast. In India alone, home to three-quarters of the world's 40,000 Asian elephants, the animals have stomped or gored to death some 4,000 people in the past two decades. Meanwhile, elephant populations have mostly plummeted in the 13 countries where they reside, a result of retaliatory killings, poaching, and accidents involving railroads and highways. Laos was once called "the land of a million elephants," but now the Southeast Asian country has just 2,500. Vietnam's population has plunged to 114.

But no place has been rocked by the conflict more than India's Northeast, especially Assam, where 5,000 jumbos roam. From 1990 to 2003, the hostilities claimed 586 people and 255 elephants. If there's a ground zero for Assam's carnage, it's the district of Sonitpur, where Williams has brought me. In one week here in 1993, elephants killed more than 50 people. Then there was the three-month period in 2001, when unknown perpetrators poisoned some 30 elephants with pesticide, one of the biggest massacres of the animal in recent history.

That mass poisoning still haunts conservationists. Could it signal an attitude shift in a people who have traditionally revered elephants? Certainly, the one great force restraining this Hindu nation from exterminating its marauding herds isn't the endangered species law. It's the nearly 2,000-year-old cult of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, along with India's rich traditions surrounding domestic elephants. "This cultural aspect has saved elephants in India," Williams says. In Sumatra, where Williams is conducting a similar campaign, "they have no elephant culture," he says. "They've brutalized their elephants." But as he and I loiter among the angry villagers outside Da Parbatia, it's clear that feelings toward elephants in Assam are at a tipping point. If villagers continue getting hammered year after year by rampaging elephants, how long before they snap?

To read the full story about how the eternal conflict of man versus beast has escalated to man versus god in India, pick up the August issue of Adventure.

Photo Gallery: See photojournalist Amy Vitale's outtakes from ground zero of the escalating conflict between India's elephants and its people. Enter gallery >>

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, August 2004

Wild Roads Special: The Best of the Backcountry
Stomping Grounds: The clash of man and elephant in northeast India
The Vanishing World of Lonnie Thompson: How glacial ice cores are unlocking the mysteries of global warming
Pelton's World: Dealing with a medical emergency overseas

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Related Web Sites

More from photographer Ami Vitale
Ami Vitale has traveled the world, and her stunning portfolio takes you there.

World Wildlife Fund
Find out more about the ongoing human-elephant conflict from the World Wildlife Fund, a global leader in conservation.

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August 2004

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