By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A social media campaign is drawing attention to the growing conflict between elephants and humans in eastern India, as the struggle for land intensifies in a rapidly urbanising country.
#GiantRefugees, launched on Twitter two weeks ago, features a video clip of a herd of elephants being harassed by a group of men in Odisha state as the animals attempt to cross a stretch of open ground.
Armed with sticks and stones, more than 200 men shout and swear at the herd of about 25 elephants, and chase them back into the forest.
"It was such a horrific situation," said Cara Tejpal, a Delhi-based conservationist who witnessed the scene in December.
"Sadly, elephants are becoming refugees in our country in the rush for development, and man-elephant conflict is reaching boiling point," she said.
Elephants in India, numbering about 30,000 in the wild, are an endangered species as unplanned development and encroachments led to fragmentation of forests and loss of habitat.
While revered as a cultural and religious icon, elephants are also hounded and killed when they wander into human settlements, damaging crops and homes.
Across India, more than 300 people are killed every year by elephants, while scores of elephants die from poaching, road and train accidents, electrocution and poisoning, the forest department estimates.
The elephants Tejpal filmed once belonged to the a wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of capital city Bhubaneswar.
The forest was connected to larger reserves, but rapid urbanisation in the resource-rich state cut off the forest, forcing the elephants to move in search or food and water, said Aditya Panda, a wildlife conservationist in Odisha.
"The elephants are stranded in a small forest space, and that's why they've been wandering into human habitations," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Calls to the chief wildlife warden were not answered.
The state forest minister Bikram Arukh has said new forests and water bodies are being created for elephants.
The forest department has also hired small groups of men in areas where elephants are known to frequent human habitations, to provide the animals with a safe passage. But this is only a temporary solution, Panda said.
State Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, at whom the #GiantRefugees campaign is directed, has not responded.
Elsewhere in the country, villagers and indigenous people have clashed with officials over what they see as an undue focus on conservation at the cost of people.
"The man-animal conflict will only get worse and we will all suffer unless we take action now," Panda said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)