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Liberian elephant rampages against logging company; residents say elephant possessed by humans

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — The unlikeliest of activists — a rampaging elephant that locals claimed was supernaturally possessed — has aired rural Liberians' frustrations with the country's profitable timber industry.

The elephant killed a logging worker in June when it charged onto the local company's property, and had also been known to menace other employees and local farmers in previous weeks.

This unlikely confluence of superstition, corporate activity and a big, mad, male elephant ended last week in a macabre draw, when logging officials killed the elephant after it killed the logging company employee.

But the dead elephant — which officials said Thursday was killed by sandwiching it between two industrial logging machines — trumpeted a growing unease between nature and industry in rural Liberia, a tiny West African country still struggling to recover from a 14-year civil war.

Locals said the elephant was possessed by human spirits and had channeled their frustrations into its rampages.

A local advocacy group says the logging industry decimates their forests while leaving no social development behind. Timber is one of Liberia's main exports and draws millions of dollars in foreign investment.

Elephants are endangered and protected in Liberia, but a forestry official said the animal had to be killed for residents' safety. In what appeared to be an attempt at reconciliation, officials have distributed elephant meat to locals. It was unclear whether residents ate the meat or not.

"We regret the two incidents: the killing of a person by the elephant and the killing of the elephant, which means we have lost an endangered species," said Theophilus Freeman, a deputy chief of Liberia's forest management agency. "We don't want to lose any of our endangered animals, but the law says if any of them becomes destructive and deadly, we get rid of it fast."

He added that authorities in Rivercess became convinced, through powers of deduction, that the elephant was not possessed by humans.

"Some people said there was a human being or two working in the elephant, but it's been two days since the killing of the elephant," he said last week. "If this was true, one or two persons would have died by now."

He said he now believes that locals claimed the elephant was possessed "to make all sorts of demands" to the logging company.

But local advocacy group leader Hilary Mentoe reacted indignantly to these assertions and threatened legal action over the suggestion that locals would use supernatural tactics to make their case against the logging industry.

"We are proud and decent people; how could we transform ourselves into an elephant to destroy lives and properties?" he told a local newspaper.

The timber industry in Liberia was placed under a United Nations embargo in 2001, when ex-president Charles Taylor was accused of looting the forests and using proceeds to fuel wars. Taylor denied the claims.

The ban was lifted in 2007 when a postwar election followed the stepping down of Charles Taylor and the election as president of an ex-World Bank executive Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.