With elephants claiming almost as many lives as Maoists, rampaging herds are becoming a jumbo issue in the Jharkhand parliamentary elections.
In a state that boasts of a forest cover of 30 per cent, the human-animal conflict is of paramount concern with the local people saying the enviable green cover spelt doom for them. Not only did the forests hide Maoist guerrillas but they harboured elephants too.
Over the last eight years, Maoist- related violence has claimed 1,500 lives -- 800 civilians and 700 security personnel and Maoist rebels. In the same period, marauding elephants have trampled to death more than 700 people.
And people say they have had absolutely enough.
"For us the elephant menace is the first issue of the elections. Price hike, development, law and order and other issues are secondary," an angry Sohrai Mahto, a resident of the Silli block in Ranchi, told IANS.
Added Raj Dhanwar Munda of West Singhbhum district: "Our lives are at risk due to rampaging elephants. Elephants regularly venture into villages, destroy houses, damage standing crops and trample people to death."
"If we have to choose between killing Maoist rebels and elephants, we will prefer elephants. Elephants not only kill but also affect our economy by destroying our houses and damaging standing crops. Elephants also attack the granaries," Ganesh Baitha of the Silli block told IANS.
In many villages, people spend their nights on trees in fear; there have been cases of women delivering babies on makeshift tree houses; and people spend sleepless hours lighting fires and drumming up traditional instruments to keep tuskers at bay.
Of the 14 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state, the elephant menace is a major issue in at least five -- Ranchi, Khuti, Hazaribagh, Chaibasa (Singhbhum) and Dumka. Of the total 24 districts of the state, at least 13 districts are affected.
Many areas are displaying posters demanding protection from elephants.
Parties say the problem has to be dealt with.
"It is true that the elephant menace is an issue for people, particularly in rural areas. No serious efforts have been made in the past to end the menace. We assure voters that we will end the problem after we return to power," said Alok Dubey of the Jharkhand Congress.
"Rampaging elephants are a cause of concern. Some measures have been adopted and there is need to do more to protect the people," said former deputy chief minister Stephen Marandi of the Jharkhand Jan Morcha.
BJP leader Sunil Soren agreed too.
"We will find what can be done to help the people," he promised.
But then this is election time and promises are heard frequently. People in the affected areas are fervently hoping that election 2009 will change their fortunes.