March 31, 2009 / 6:38 AM / 10 years ago

Elephants loom large as an issue in Indian elections

RANCHI, India (Reuters) - Along with Maoist rebels, rampaging elephants have become a key voter issue in eastern India ahead of the upcoming general election as political parties promise to save villagers from the animals.

An elephant damages a vehicle after going on a rampage in the southern Indian city of Kochi February 27, 2009. REUTERS/Sivaram

Villagers have put up banners saying, “save us from elephants and get our votes,” and “help us and we will help you,” in Ranchi city, the capital of eastern Jharkhand state, and other towns.

A shrinking habitat has forced elephants to raid farmlands and villagers have been encroaching upon forest land to build homes, increasing the man-animal conflict in the state, which has also been hit by Maoist militancy.

“We can assure you that we will make serious efforts to end the problem of elephants by chalking out a national policy,” said Alok Dubey, a local leader of India’s ruling Congress party.

Between 60 to 100 people are trampled to death every year in Jharkhand by elephants, which have also destroyed crops and homes, officials said.

Villagers say they can seek the help of police to tackle Maoist rebels, but elephants are more dangerous.

“This year, our vote will go only to those candidates who will helping in getting rid of elephants,” said Gandura Mahato, a villager.

In the last four years, villagers have also killed 40 elephants, officials say, apart from using chilies and fire crackers to keep the animals away. Some have recruited camels, saying the beasts’ stink was enough to keep elephants at bay.

“Elephants and Maoists rebels are the two major problems in Jharkhand,” said Sukhdeo Singh, a forest department official.

India’s main opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists are also going to villages, assuring help from elephants.

“We will give serious thought to find a solution to the problem when we are in power,” said Sunil Soren, a BJP candidate from the Dumka parliamentary constituency, as he toured villages.

Writing by Bappa Majumdar; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Valerie Lee

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