JIA GABHARU, India – Every night when the rice is ripening in their fields, the young men climb into watchtowers to peer anxiously toward the Himalayan foothills from which the gray giants emerge.
Before them, a 5-kilometer (3-mile), high-voltage fence provides dubious defense against a crafty, brainy enemy. To their rear, patrols are mounted from settlements ringed by trenches and armed with spears, torches, stinging smoke bombs and sometimes guns and poison.
Here, in India's northeast state of Assam, is one of the hottest fronts of a heart-rending, escalating conflict. It is waged daily in villages, fields and plantations of 13 countries across Asia where forests and grasslands continue to shrink, igniting a turf war between one-time friends: land-hungry man and a simply hungry Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant.
The elephant's survival is at best uncertain.
In India and Sri Lanka, where the struggle is most intense, more than 400 elephants and 250 humans are killed each year. Deaths on both sides occur frequently in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere. Sharks, by contrast, kill fewer than half a dozen swimmers a year worldwide.
Although the age-old bonds between human and elephant are yet to be totally severed, some angry villagers electrocute the animals with high tension wires or fell them with rifles, poison-tipped arrows and homemade rice liquor, an elephant favorite, laced with insecticides.
Humans, often poor rural dwellers, suffer no less.
In the village of Galighat in eastern Assam, accessible only by boat and foot, a rogue male elephant recently killed five residents in little more than a month, wrecking six houses in nighttime strikes, decapitating scores of banana trees and pilfering granaries.
The latest victim was Phulania Dutta, whose skull bones were still strewn on the earth near her obliterated home where eyewitnesses described how two nights earlier the elephant crushed her head and chest with a foreleg, then kicked her aside.
First, it knocked down the stilts of the raised bamboo and thatch house, then began furiously stomping down on the rubble. Trapped under a wooden pillar, Dutta's husband survived, but as the 48-year-old woman fled the ruin screaming, the elephant closed in for the kill.
"We have applied for help from the government but nothing has come. We have taken whatever precautions we can. We have prayed. But nothing works. We cannot coexist," said villager Mohammed Abul Ali, looking over tattered clothing, pans and other meager possessions scattered among Dutta's totally flattened home. A family dog and its puppy lay listlessly on what was once the roof.
Prospects for future coexistence, wildlife experts say, are bleak despite a host of conservation projects, from biofencing to elephant tracking via satellite telemetry.
The past is a stark indicator of the endangered creature's future. The animal has disappeared from some 95 percent of its historical range, an elephant empire which stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Yellow River in northern China. Thailand, for example, harbored some 100,000 elephants at the beginning of the 20th century, but is down to less than 6,000 today.
According to the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, 38,500 to 52,500 wild elephants survive in Asia with only another 15,000 in captivity, having largely lost their traditional roles as loggers, trucks, battle tanks and prestige symbols of royal courts.
An Asian elephant can weigh up to five tons. The larger African elephant, although more numerous, is also listed as an endangered species, subject to similar onslaughts.
"Everyone knows the cause, even the layman, the villager, that the forest is finished, that the elephant has no place to remain safely and doesn't have anything to eat, so they are coming out," says Bhupendra Nath Talukdar, a leading wildlife officer in the Assam Forest Department.
"In this battle, the elephant will be defeated easily," he says. "It is really not a conflict with the elephant. It was their place and now we have occupied it."
But the elephant isn't giving up without a fight, and in some places man has even had to surrender territory.
Faced with daily crop raiding, the 45 families of Assam's Rubberbeal village fled a decade ago while residents of a neighboring village remained but built tree houses for speedy getaways. Only now, a few of the families are cautiously returning to an eerie site. The creaking of wind-swept bamboo floats across fallow rice fields and tangled jungle vegetation blankets traces of abandoned homes.
The villagers hope that a now defunct electric fence can be restored. But foolproof humane deterrents — killing of elephants is illegal in Asian countries — have yet to be found, and the highly intelligent animals rarely fall for the same trick twice.
At Jia Gabharu, in Assam's elephant-rife Sonitpur district, forest ranger Gopal Deka said he recently saw a bull sniff the 5-kilometer, 10,000-volt fence, then grab the branch of a banana tree to batten down the wires.
Similar stories are heard of elephants kicking down fence posts or wielding their tusks, which don't conduct electricity, to break through. They have been known to push in earth to fill trenches.
Some herds quickly habituate to traditional repellants like firecrackers, drums and torches, while others take a liking to formerly shunned crops, like citrus fruit, grown as buffer zones. In Bhutan, they have been seen eating oranges and in Sri Lanka even sampling chilies which the giants normally can't tolerate.
Nevertheless, Nandita Hazarika, head of the Assam Haathi Project, says chili has proved probably the best defense for the 800 families the nongovernment organization is helping. In an adaptation from Africa, farmers mix ground chilies, automobile grease and tobacco and smear the paste on rope fences.
The same concoction, wrapped in straw or even inserted into dried dung, is used in chili rolls and "bombs" that are set afire to emit a stinging smoke, made more potent in Assam if the "bhut joloika," perhaps the world's hottest chili, is used.
Elephants can also be clever tacticians. Staffer Dhruba Das has for four years been tracking a "gang" of half a dozen young bulls led by a massive male named Tara, who has taught his charges to open compound gates and neatly break into kitchens and food storage sheds without destroying them. They have not killed, preferring to surround a house, stationing two at the front, one in the back to keep frightened people inside while a fourth homes in on food with his trunk. The loot is then shared.
Such scenes are played out every fall in Sontipur as elephants move out of the Himalayan foothills southward to the Brahmaputra river, following traditional corridors to feed and breed in the grasslands. They return early in the year.
The elephants used to pass human settlements with few problems. But in recent decades, more than 65 percent of forests in the foothills have been razed, while the once forested migration corridors and open grasslands are all but gone, forcing the elephants to move through villages, fields and tea plantations where food is not hard to find.
In a pattern similar to other Asian countries, the corridors are also fragmented by roads, railways, dams and mushrooming towns so the elephants now disperse over ever wider areas. The elephant-man conflict, it is estimated, has spread to almost 60 percent of Assam.
Herds rarely enter villages and killers tend to be male rogues — frustrated young bulls expelled from a herd, aging loners with painful injuries or animals in sexual heat.
Dinesh Choudhury, whose family kept elephants for generations, is one of the last hunters called on by the Indian government to put down habitual killers. He adamantly believes elephants can also turn into what he calls "criminals, terrorists" if severely abused by humans.
Some experts say the only hope for an end to the wars are well-managed wildlife sanctuaries, the restoration of forests outside such reserves and perhaps the abiding love of man for jumbos.
"We're only giving painkillers. We have not had real success... But politicians have no interest in wildlife. For them it's a burden. Wildlife doesn't vote. Right now I don't think we have a chance of reclaiming even 1 percent of the destroyed forests," said Hiten Kumar Baishya of the Sontipur office of the World Wide Fund for Nature, which runs projects throughout Asia's elephant ranges.
Hazarika says restoration of their habitat would take 20 to 30 years, adding, "Till then what do you do? We can't even protect what we have."
She hopes the instinct to retaliate after an elephant attack will be mitigated by the ancient aura of divinity around the animal on the Indian subcontinent and around Southeast Asia, mainly through Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of the Hindu god Shiva, whose shrines dot the region. Enraged villagers may kill an elephant only to later pray before its corpse.
"Villagers still have a respect for elephants," Hazarika says. "But the level of tolerance is getting lower and lower."
This was true of the traumatized people of Galighat as some 30 men set out to expel the rogue killer armed only with spears, machetes and firecrackers. They crossed harvested rice paddies, cut a tunnel through thick undergrowth and followed fresh footprints and dung on a dry river bed.
Finally, the elephant was found deep in a sea of towering reeds, hidden, angry and crazy, its breathing clearly audible. It was the size of two pickup trucks and endowed with incredible speed over short distances. The men called a retreat.
The elephant will almost certainly return, and raid and perhaps kill again. But Choudhury believes free-roaming beasts will vanish in less than a decade.
"We knew elephants by heart and they also knew us by heart. The golden era is gone and that is quite painful," he says. "The present scenario is altogether a different thing. The conflict is at the high end and the elephant is fighting a losing battle.
"The fate of the Assam elephants? We will see only their graveyard, and nothing beyond that."