An elephant charges to protect its calf and is shot with rubber bullets

Home World Update An elephant charges to protect its calf and is shot with rubber bullets
An elephant charges to protect its calf and is shot with rubber bullets

In India's far north-east, a deadly clash between elephants and humans takes place each year. Radical solutions are now needed.

Rumours of a hundred-strong elephant herd taking shelter in the cool of a tea plantation have been spreading all morning.

Young men and children have flocked to the fields, but they're not just here for a peek at the mighty gathering.

They're taunting the elephants — lighting firecrackers, blowing horns and throwing rocks. And the herd is getting agitated.

Kids and young men run through the tea fields. One boy is holding a firecracker.

It's hours before forestry department rangers arrive to break the stand-off, but their methods of moving the herd on seem no less confrontational.

The rangers shoulder their weapons and rev their trucks down narrow lanes through the fields.

The tension is ratcheting up, and the herd is on the move.

Small explosives are crackling in the air and voices are raised to a shout.

Forestry rangers jump into the back of a four-wheel drive.

A mother elephant guarding her calf feels threatened and suddenly pivots to charge a forestry truck.

A ranger raises his weapon and shoots her in the face at close range with rubber pellets.

Her lumbering frame is halted, she retreats down the road, little one still toddling at her feet.

Elephant shot with rubber bullets after charging rangers

The herd has been evicted, for now.

The corridors are broken

Assam state in India's far north-east is both blessed and cursed.

The forests are lush, and the land is fertile. But Assam is also home to nearly 6,000 wild elephants, living among 30 million people.

Rapid industrialisation and population growth are hemming the elephants into ever-smaller tracts of land.

A plantation worker stands among the green tea fields.

Human-elephant conflict is the result. Hundreds of people — and elephants — are killed each year in India as the two species clash.

In Assam alone, 70 people were killed in 2018.

An angry elephant can be deadly. A five-tonne adult will stop at almost nothing to protect its young.

Humans who get in the way can be trampled to death.

An elephant retreats after charging at farmers. The mother had been separated from her calf.

Elephants are victims in this conflict too. Up to 70 are believed to have died in Assam in 2018.

Some have been hit by trains, electrocuted by low-hanging power lines and, sometimes, deliberately poisoned.

"From the month of September to December every year, every day in almost every part [of India] you have elephant and human encounters," conservationist and filmmaker Rita Banerji said.

Ms Banerji runs a conservation group called Green Hub, which trains young locals throughout Assam to work as filmmakers, so they can document wildlife issues in India's far north-east.

Kids on bicycles follow a man on a motorbike.

Her proteges are often on the frontline of the conflict, filming clashes between villagers and elephants.

"Earlier, there were continuous forests from one area to the other and the migratory path of the elephant is called the elephant corridor," she said.

"It's the same corridor that they use year by year. And now all those corridors are broken."

The green corridors have been blocked off by new roads, factories and farmland.

Elephant herds are forced to venture out of the safety of the forest in search of food and water in the dry winter months.

"The situation with development and the forests going has become so tough that we don't know whose space is it anymore," Ms Banerji said.

"We don't know whether it's for the elephants or the people."

A menace in the darkness

A tea farmer scales a tree trunk at night.

Subsistence farmer Dwijen Das sits perched in a monstrous fig tree looking out over his rice fields.

Night is falling, and the edge of the forest is cloaked in shadow as he scans for signs of an elephant herd approaching.

Mr Das has built a treehouse high up in the branches, and he spends his nights there keeping watch over his crop.

"I have to drive them out, without caring for my life," he said.

"Yes. I am scared. But what can I do? They are destroying my crop."

The elephants emerge from the forest that borders the farmland late at night.

Dwijen Das sits in a treehouse at night watching for elephants.

They're lured by the scent of ripe rice in the paddy fields.

"Many nights I remain awake waiting for the elephants. When they don't come then I can go to sleep," Mr Das said.

He shines a torch at the animals to deter them, and if they refuse to budge, he might light a firecracker or two in an effort to scare them away.

A single hungry elephant can destroy a whole year's crop in one night, leaving farming families with no income.

A farmer sits by an open fire at night.

The world-famous Assam tea has played a role in this stand-off between humans and animals.

Swathes of forest were destroyed to make way for plantations when the British started growing tea in India's eastern frontier 200 years ago.

Today, tea estates are still expanding into the remaining forest areas.

While elephants don't eat tea plants, they use the shady plantations to rest in the heat of the day.

Deaths of plantation workers who run into elephants are not uncommon, and elephants sometimes die when they fall down huge trenches built to protect the crop.

A farm in Assam after nightfall.

The Forestry Department is charged with managing the conflict, but rangers complain about a lack of staff, vehicles and basic tools like torches.

Farmers feel they are left alone to face down the elephant menace.

"We need to drive [elephants] away to secure our harvest and livelihood," rice farmer Shayaran Bodo said.

"If we don't do that, how can we feed our families and children?"

Mr Bodo understands why elephants are marauding so close to the fields.

"Human beings have encroached on the forest. Elephants don't have much to eat in the forest. Their food is depleting fast," he said.

"Therefore they are coming out of the forest. They are destroying our houses and barns, eating our paddy rice.

"They are completely destroying our crops. They are hungry. But we are hungry as well."

Gods or demons

Nationwide, India's elephant population has declined to about 27,000 — a 10 per cent drop in the last six years.

While deforestation is difficult to reverse, there are moves afoot to protect elephant habitat.

An elephant and its calf cross a roadway at night.

"There's a big plan across India actually to revive the elephant corridors," Ms Banerji said.

"It does not mean that you try and get everything back, but really study where the corridors were and see if the corridors can be revived."

In Assam, an elephant corridor was successfully recreated by relocating a small village of 19 families.

The people agreed to move and be rehoused.

A sign reading 'elephant corridor ahead' next to a train line.

"So that area is now a free forest corridor between two big forest areas, so that's become a free part for elephants to move. And so, it reduces the conflict," Ms Banerji said.

"People are in a better position because they are in an area where they can do agriculture now. It's not easy but those are the kind of solutions we have looked for."

Indian people revere elephants as the worldly incarnation of the god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles.

But this ancient relationship has been strained because of what has become a struggle for survival and space between species.

A young girl looks at the camera as her friend laughs.

"Yes, people have a lot of reverence for the elephant," Ms Banerji said.

"But we cannot be comfortable with that idea because now, with the kind of suffering people are having, there is anger."

"Ganesh Baba exists," Mr Bodo said. "Ganesh is our God. But these elephants are not God."

Watch Man vs Wild tonight at 8:00pm on ABC TV.