India's environment minister has ordered a probe into a recent spate of wild elephant deaths, apparently as a result of accidental poisonings, near a remote northeastern wildlife refuge, officials said Thursday.
Four elephants, including two calves, have died over the past two weeks just outside the Kaziranga National Park, leading to widespread condemnation by animal rights activists.
The elephants are believed to have strayed out of the 480-square-kilometer (300-square-mile) park in search of food, and died after eating grass in a tea plantation that had been treated with pesticides to drive away ants, officials said.
More than half the park is flooded because of heavy rains, forcing elephants to roam into the surrounding area.
Pesticide use is heavily restricted in areas near the park.
"We have collected samples and have sent them for forensic tests," Assam Forest Minister Rokybul Hussain told The Associated Press. "We shall take stringent action under the Wildlife Protection Act against the tea plantation authorities if the tests confirm poisoning."
Deadly encounters between humans and wild elephants _ whether on purpose or accidental _ have spiked in recent years in the Indian northeast. The region has the world's highest number of wild Asiatic elephants, with 7,000 estimated in the states of Assam and Meghalaya alone.
About 700 people have been killed by elephants in the northeast in the past 19 years. Conservationists say rising elephant attacks on people are largely the result of the rapid shrinkage of their habitat.
The elephants often roam through villages looking for food.
Satellite imagery by India's National Remote Sensing Agency found that about 691,000 acres (280,000 hectares) of thick forests were cleared by people in Assam state between 1996 and 2000.