GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) – An elephant named “Osama bin Laden” that has killed 27 people in northeast India, has been shot dead, triggering protests by conservationists who say forestry officials had probably shot the wrong animal.
The 10-feet tall male elephant had been terrorizing villagers in Assam state for the past two years, destroying hundreds of homes and trampling scores of people — prompting locals to name him after the elusive al Qaeda leader.
The animal was accused of killing 14 people in the past month.
A forestry official said on Sunday “Osama” had been shot dead on Saturday in a tea plantation on the outskirts of Behali town, about 140 km (90 miles) north of Guwahati, Assam’s main city.
“The elephant was killed after villagers identified him,” a senior forestry official said, adding the animal could be identified because it had no tusks.
Despite efforts by local authorities to hunt him down, “Osama” had evaded them moving from place to place, hiding in forests and tea estates in the northern parts of Assam.
The hunt for “Osama,” believed to have been between 45 and 50 years old, came to a climax last week when Assam’s local assembly ordered a shoot-to-kill directive to forestry officials and a deadline to hunt the beast down by December 31.
“The elephant has been killing people, destroying houses in villages in my constituency,” Ranjit Dutta, a MP from Behali. “He was not afraid of fire and even firecrackers.”
Conservationists have criticized the shooting, saying the elephant killed was not “Osama,” but a look-a-like.
“Probably this is not the same elephant they wanted to kill,” said Kushal Sharma, an elephant expert.
“The elephant was found in a different habitat more than 80 km (50 miles) away from his usual place where he moves around.”
Activists said forest officials hurriedly buried the elephant without verifying the foot prints, dimensions and other identifying marks that were the same as “Osama’s.”
“They have killed an innocent elephant. It is an eye wash and shame on the part of the forest officials in Assam,” Soumyadeep Dutta, a wildlife conservationist said.
Elephants are a protected and endangered species in India.
Animal rights activists fear there will now be serious repercussions, with the herd of elephants to which “Osama” belonged likely taking revenge and destroying more villages and people in the area.
On Saturday night, several thatched houses were destroyed by a group of elephants in the same area where “Osama” was killed.
India has nearly half of the world’s 60,000 Asian elephants, with around 5,000 in Assam, according to a census conducted in 2002.
But conservationists say the pachyderm population has fallen rapidly in recent years because of loss of habitat as a result of human encroachment into forest areas, leading to human-elephant conflicts.