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Villagers, elephants fight for right to life in India

By Bappa Majumdar
Reuters
Tuesday, January 9, 2007; 6:49 PM

KOLKATA, India (Reuters) - When a herd of wild elephants rampaged through a school kitchen in India's West Bengal state, gobbling up rice and lentils, seven-year-old Suman Bera and classmates were left without lunch -- and lessons.

The animals left a trail of destruction in their search for food, forcing officials to cancel classes.

As forest habitat is felled by a growing population in need of more land for homes and farms, India's remaining elephant population and its people are coming into conflict, causing a jumbo-sized headache for rural officials and wildlife activists.

"It's a matter of survival for both man and animal," said Animesh Bose, head of the West Bengal-based Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation.

"Elephants are migratory animals and move from one forest to the other through corridors which have often been lost due to villages that have sprung up in the last few decades," Bose said.

Home to 50,000 wild Asian elephants a century ago, just 26,400 elephants were roaming India's national parks and forests in 2002. Worse, the first comprehensive elephant census published in 2005 showed a steep drop in numbers to just 21,300 elephants.

Late last year, the environment ministry's Forest Survey of India reported a steady depletion of forest land in 11 major wildlife reserves since 1997.

According to the survey, only 20 percent of India's landmass is forested and just 120,000 square kilometers (46,340 square miles) -- less than four percent of the country -- of that is suitable for elephants.

Officials have set a target of 33 percent forest cover by 2012 through extensive reforestation programs, but wildlife activists have derided the plans as almost impossible to achieve.

"With rampant habitat destruction the herd is now fragmented and groups are becoming smaller in size ... as a result they are not breeding as we hoped they would, which is a major worry," said Shakti Ranjan Banerjee, West Bengal secretary of WWF-India.

Most of India's elephants live in protected reserves in fourteen states from north to south but even these are under pressure from human encroachment and infrastructure development.

The Center for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based pressure group, says in 2006 three million people were living in protected areas, including sanctuaries, parks and reserves.


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