GAUHATI, India – About 100 wild elephants have converged on a river island in northeast India, demolishing homes, feasting on sugarcane and panicking residents, officials said Saturday.
Thousands of villagers were using firecrackers and bonfires to scare away the rampaging animals.
"Dozens of houses have been destroyed in the past three days by adult elephants entering human settlements to look for their wandering calves," said the local magistrate, L.S. Changsan.
Up to 50 families have moved to a local school being used as a refugee camp, Changsan said.
About 150,000 people live on the 338-square mile island of Majuli in the Brahmaputra River, nearly 220 miles east of Assam state's capital, Gauhati.
Officials say the elephants swam to the island from a nearby hill region, beginning their rampage nearly a week ago.
"Forestry workers and officials are on the island, trying to assist the villagers in pushing the elephants away from the settlements," Changsan said. "The job is proving difficult."
India has Asia's largest elephant population, with 10,000 to 15,000 of the animals, but their numbers are declining due to habitat loss and poaching.
Assam state alone accounts for nearly 5,000 wild elephants. Conservationists say the animals have killed more than 600 people in the state over the past 16 years.
Satellite imagery by India's National Remote Sensing Agency shows that up to 280,000 hectares of Assam's forests have been cleared in 1996-2000.
Angry villagers' attacks on wandering elephants in the area have shocked conservationists. Villagers poisoned 19 wild elephants in northern Assam's Sonitpur district in 2001 after the animals feasted on crops and demolished huts.