GAUHATI, India – Wild elephant herds (search) have been terrorizing India's remote northeast, killing people, flattening houses and even guzzling local rice beer supplies, prompting villagers to retaliate against the pachyderms with firecrackers and bonfires.
With an estimated 5,000 elephants, Assam state (search) has the largest concentration of wild Asiatic elephants in India, said M.C. Malakar, Assam's Chief Wildlife Warden.
The big herds, faced with shrinking forest cover and human encroachment of their corridors, venture into human settlements looking for food and attack those who try to stop them.
The wild elephants have stampeded across the region, stomping down houses and feasting on standing crops, Pradyut Bordoloi, Assam state's forest minister, said Saturday.
Rice beer is an attraction. Workers in tea plantations in Assam make rice beer at home and store it in drums.
"There are many instances of wild elephants guzzling the brew and returning for more," Bordoloi said.
Wild elephants have killed at least 22 people so far this year in the state, wildlife authorities say. A rapidly shrinking habitat is the main reason for elephants killing more than 600 people in the past 15 years, the authorities say.
On Oct. 26, wild elephants guzzled rice beer kept in drums in Marongi, a village about 175 miles east of Assam's main city of Gauhati (search), and then went on a rampage, trampling three people to death and wounding two others, India media reported.
Wildlife officials and villagers use firecrackers and bonfires to scare away the large herds, Bordoloi told The Associated Press. Villagers also beat on drums.
Officials also use electric fences and dig trenches, but these are meant to protect people from elephant attacks, not to scare the elephants.
In 2001, at least 19 wild elephants were poisoned to death by angry villagers, Bordoloi said.
Satellite imagery showed that as many as 113,315 acres of thick forests were cleared by human encroachers in 1996-2000, leading to the breakup of traditional elephant corridors and their habitat, Bordoloi said.
A government ban on capturing elephants and restrictions on sending them to other states has aggravated Assam's problem.
The state has created buffer zones to tackle the menace. An area on the periphery of villages is cultivated with plants found palatable by the elephants, and the second layer has plants like mustard that elephants shun.
Authorities are encouraging the farmers to buy crop insurance and are raising compensation to the families of those killed by elephants.
"The idea is to prevent angry villagers from retaliating and attempting to kill raiding elephants," Bordoloi said. "The elephants are a part of our heritage and we have to coexist."