Rapid population growth in India has seen increased conflict between humans and animals, as natural habitats are squeezed to make space for agricultural land. Amongst the species most impacted by human encroachment into jungle areas is the Indian elephant, which has suffered a population decline of at least 50% since the 1940s. Violence between humans and elephants is sadly a common occurrence in many rural parts of India: in the five years leading up to 2019, more than 2,300 people were killed by the animals, including 494 in 2018 alone. By comparison, tigers were responsible for just 200 human deaths over the same time period.
One large bull elephant in particular gained a grim reputation as a killer of humans, responsible for at least 27 deaths over a two-year period between 2004 and 2006. The elephant’s violent attacks saw it mockingly nicknamed Osama Bin Laden, after the then leader of the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda. Estimated to be around 50 years old and measuring around three metres in height, Osama was part of an estimated 5,300 elephants living in the Indian state of Assam. Conflict between the animals and farmers had become increasingly problematic, with over 250 people trampled to death between 2001 and 2006. In response, farmers and villagers killed at least 268 elephants.
Osama began his spree of attacks in 2004, ultimately trampling 27 people to death and smashing hundreds of homes. He was branded a ‘rogue elephant’ in 2005 after his victims reached double figures. In the six months before an elephant believed to be Osama was shot dead, 14 people lost their lives. he appeared to be largely unafraid of either fire or firecrackers, the usual tactics for driving away elephants.
A ‘shoot to kill’ directive was issued in December 2006 as the deaths continued to mount. After an elephant believed to be Osama was spotted at a tea plantation, villagers used drums and fire to hem the elephant in before professional hunter Dipen Phukan arrived to dispatch it. On spotting a man with a rifle, the elephant charged. Phukan later stated that the animal was only a few metres from him when he brought it down with multiple shots from a high-calibre rifle.
After the killing there was a significant amount of debate surrounding whether the correct elephant had been shot. Experts from the College of Veterinary Science believed that the wrong animal had been killed, pointing out that it was found more than 50 miles from where it was usually sited. Activists argued that forestry officials had failed to properly verify whether the animal was Osama before burying it. There were also concerns that other members of Osama’s herd would carry out revenge attacks, with several thatched cottages in the area being destroyed by elephants in the days following his death.