As the harvest season came to an end in Nagaon and surrounding areas bordering West Karbi Anglong in Assam, a herd of 40 elephants split into two, like they would, each year after the harvest season. Elephant experts and forest officials claim that the Tapatjuri, a spring situated in the Bamuni hills under Kandali proposed reserve forest, continues to be an elephant habitat. On Thursday evening, 18 elephants from this herd were found dead on the Bamuni Hill with forest officials suspecting that they might have been killed by lightning strike.
Forest officials counted 10 females, three calves and five males among the elephants that died at Bamuni Hill.
“Based on the circumstantial evidences such as burnt skin on the elephants one can say that the death may have been caused by a lightning strike. However, we will have to wait for the post-mortem,” Vasanthan B, Divisional Forest Officer, Nagaon told Eastmojo.
“Bamuni hill is a known elephant habitat as it is also close to Karbi Anglong,” the official added.
High voltage shock
The deaths have led to a lot of speculation around the cause. Congress leader Pradyut Bordoloi, who had represented Nagaon constituency, expressed his shock over the deaths of the elephants to a lightning strike in a social media post.
“How can 18 elephants die due to a lightning strike?” the former Assam forests and environment and also power and industries minister wrote.
Binod Dulu Bora, a wildlife expert and rescuer who works with Green Guard Nature Organization, a non-profit that specialises on conserving wildlife in and around Karbi Anglong, reached the spot along with his team at Bamuni.
“From the evidence we gathered, it seems like the elephants died to due to a lightning strike. There were burnt marks on the skin of the elephants. Some of the trees were also burnt,” Bora told EastMojo.
“The hills have very less soil cover left. If there was enough soil, the casualties would have been less. But a rocky surface may have passed on the high voltage shock to the other elephants,” Bora added.
Bora and other volunteers of Green Guard have been observing these elephants for a while now.
“Bamuni Hill is their natural habitat and they move around the 15 to 20 kilometres radius in this season. Elephants from Kaziranga do come here but they do not stay here for more than two weeks. These 18 elephants belonged to a larger herd of 40 elephants that belong to Bagcher area that spans some parts of Nagaon and Karbi Anglong. Elephants from Bagcher side do not easily go towards Kaziranga and vice versa. After the crop harvest season, the larger herds split into smaller ones,” Bora said.
On Friday, when Assam Forest Minister, Parimal Suklabaidya visited the site, the local leaders of Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), a powerful students’ organization and Nagaon CPI unit rushed to the site, unconvinced that a lightning strike would have killed the herd.
Pragjyotish Bonia, the local AJYCP leader, claimed illegal tree felling and stone quarries are being run by powerful elements which might have led to the deaths.
“Bamuni Hills are connected to Burha Pahar in Kaziranga. More than 150 to 200 elephants move through this area. These hills have become barren at many places. There are no big trees and the tree cover is missing. The issue needs to be probed,” said Bonia.
Locals like Samson Ingti, a resident of Mikir Bamuni cluster of villages, on the other hand, blamed it on 15 MW Solar Power Plant built by Azure Power Forty in a disputed land.
“We have opposed this project saying that this is an elephant habitat. Besides several illegalities while allowing the diversion of our agricultural land to the solar power project, Nagaon Forest Department gave a no-objection certificate. Following this, there was no environmental impact assessment of the project,” said Ingti.
Ingti, along with 40 Adivasi and Karbi families, are locked in a court battle against Azure Power Forty for the last one year with protests continuing for more than 100 days, less than three kilometres from Bamuni hill where the elephants were found dead.
“Elephants use the fields as their path, where the said project belonging to Azure is coming up. Two days back they installed flood lights with CRPF personnel guarding
the construction on the first day. Instead of using the Bamuni Hill to reach Tapatjuri, the herd would have used the field,” added Ingti. Ever since the company built a fence around 287 bighas of land, elephants have broken the fence on several occasions.
Ratul Bora, the Nagaon District Secretary of CPI told EastMojo in a memorandum to the Forest Minister, the party demanded that the solar power project needs a review.
“Along with the demand to make the post-mortem results public, we have asked Assam government to revisit and stop the construction of the solar power plant right next to Bamuni hill immediately where the deaths have occurred,” said Bora.
The CPI leader cited the Supreme Court judgement of August 9, 2018, when Justice M.B. Lokur with Justices S. Abdul Nazeer and Deepak Gupta ordered shutting down of 39 resorts in Tamil Nadu on an elephant corridor following public interest litigation (PIL).
“Those were resorts and restaurants. Here we are seeing industrial activity right next to an elephant habitat. Assam government should have been careful before opening up agricultural lands to industries next to elephant habitats in Assam,” he added.
Moloy Baruah, an environmental activist and coordinator of Assam Environmental NGO Forum, an umbrella organization of conservation non profits, however, says that marking an elephant corridor is not so easy in Assam.
“Wherever there are hills, we have elephants in Assam. In Nagaon’s case, it will not be marked as an elephant corridor so easily. But it is a habitat. Even if we have an elephant corridor, industries such as Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali plant have been set up in Sonitpur, where one elephant and a calf died when they fell inside a ditch in the constructed part by the industry,” Baruah told EastMojo.
The environmental activist lamented that elephant corridors that existed between Meghalaya and Karbi Anglong were de-notified way back in 1991 because elephants disappeared from the region.
While the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change considers the Indian elephant as the ‘national heritage animal’, according to a 2017 study, Assam has only 5,719 elephants. According to Wildlife Trust of India’s 2017 study, Right of Passage, Northeastern India, including Assam, only has 23 corridors despite Assam having second highest population of elephants in India, next only to Karnataka.
While lightening strike as a possible cause of elephants’ death can be considered as a rare phenomenon, the incident has yet again exposed the dangers faced by Indian elephants.