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Photo: Photographer Ami Vitale
Photographer Ami Vitale
India's Elephantine Problem
A photo dispatch from ground zero of the escalating conflict between India's elephants and its people.

Photographer Ami Vitale is no stranger to covering conflict. Shooting for magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, she has documented wars from the Balkans, east to Palestine, and south to Angola. In December, while on assignment for Adventure, Vitale traveled to India's northeastern state of Assam to cover a different sort of conflict—one that pits an exploding human population against a strained but active elephant population.

At its core, the story Vitale documented is not entirely unfamiliar: Mankind pushes animal species to the brink of extinction through habitat destruction.Map: India We've watched similar stories unfold in central Africa, where the mountain gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey have been forced high into the Virunga Mountains, and again in North America, where the once wide-ranging grizzly looks to Alaska for its only remaining stronghold. But perhaps nowhere on Earth is the showdown between man and beast more widespread, or more deadly, than in Assam, where a wild elephant population numbering some 5,000 has been pushed into increasingly violent conflict with a burgeoning number of human inhabitants. As a result, over the course of the past decade, hundreds of villagers as well as elephants have been killed.

"I'm more afraid of a raging elephant than a bullet," says Vitale. "Wild elephants are terrifying—no one [in Assam] sleeps at night."

To complicate matters, most Indians view elephants as earthly manifestations of the Lord Ganesha, one of the most popular deities in the crowded Hindu pantheon. The conflict, then, is more than just a showdown of man versus beast. Assam's people are at war with a god.

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August 2004

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