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Sunday, 19 November, 2000, 06:31 GMT
Jumbo problem for Indian Air Force
india elephant
Elephant numbers have mushroomed in Assam
Herds of elephants are wreaking havoc at Indian Air Force bases in the north-eastern state of Assam, lumbering across busy runways and putting hi-tech equipment in jeopardy.

mig21
The air force wants to clear land around its bases. Pic courtesy Bharat Rakshak/IAF
Elephant numbers have grown by 40% in Assam in the past 20 years partly thanks to wildlife protection laws and they are looking for new pastures because of disappearing forest cover.

Domesticated elephants are also a status symbol in Assam because people believe they bring good luck.

But their expanding numbers means bad luck for the Indian Air Force at Salonibari air base, 190km (120 miles) from the state capital Guwahati.


We are maintaining a round-the-clock vigil

Air Marshal K N Nair
One local herd, at times numbering up to 200 elephants, has destroyed property and equipment worth three million rupees ($66,000).

Air Marshal K N Nair, said: "The elephant herd is at present feasting in a thick forest close to Salonibari station.

"We are maintaining a round-the-clock vigil."

elephant
Domesticated elephants are a status symbol in Assam
The base's perimeter guards have been issued firecrackers to try to scare off any elephants trying to break the boundary wall.

Elephant expert Dinesh Chaudhary said: "They come out of the jungles at night around October every year looking for easy food, and once they find nutritious food during the harvesting time they stay back.

"In the course of their stay, the elephants destroy the paddy fields and granaries, even trespass inside airfields.

"What I would suggest is to put up electric fencing along the forest boundary to keep them off."

Animals 'very clever'

But the Air Force now plans to control the problem by clearing land next to its bases.

At least 100 people have been trampled to death in the past year in Assam, which has an estimated population of about 5,500 elephants.

Villagers are thought to have killed more than 200 elephants in Assam during the past five years and wildlife authorities have urged the federal government to allow the capturing of wild elephants to minimise the damage caused.

Capturing young wild elephants, or pregnant or nursing ones, is banned under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 unless permitted by the Ministry of Forest and Environment.

A state wildlife official said: "We have formed several squads with the help of local villagers to drive away elephant herds.

"But we know that is only a mild deterrent as the animals are very clever nowadays."

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