Guwahati: After more than a fortnight since 18 elephants were found dead on top of a hill near Nagaon in Assam, a committee appointed by Assam Forest and Wildlife Department has determined that the deaths were caused by a lightning strike. Despite this voluminous report prepared by the Committee led by Deputy Conservator of Forests, K.K. Deori, a police complaint was filed at Samaguri Police Station on Thursday against Forest and Wildlife Department, in which a Solar power developer was also blamed for the deaths of pachyderms. 

Addressing a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Assam’s Forest and Environment Minister, Parimal Suklabaidya announced key findings of the report.

“At around 1:30 pm on May 13, we received the news that some elephants might have died in the Bamuni hill, which is also called Tapatjuri by the staff of Tapatjuri tea estate. Forest officials along with guards reached the spot, and on the next day, a committee of seven veterinary experts started the investigation followed by post-mortem by collecting samples of the dead animals,” the minister said at the press conference. 

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Strong current

The PM report concluded that 18 elephants – 10 females & 8 males, including five calves – died accidently due to lightning (File photo)

According to the K.K. Deori, the lead investigating officer of the Committee formed by Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam, forensic samples were collected from the carcasses of 18 elephants scattered within a perimeter of 145 metres on May 14 – two different sites where carcasses were found with at least 129-metre gap. Besides toxicological examination to check if the elephants were poisoned, microbiological studies to ascertain any outbreak of diseases such as Anthrax, as well as site examinations of partially burnt trees were conducted by the committee. North East Space Applications Centre (NESAC), a regional centre dedicated to remote sensing studies, also chipped in and ascertained the heavy lightning activity in the region on May 12 – the day when the elephants might have died, according to the veterinary scientists assisting the probe. NESAC estimated that at least 39 kilo Amperes of peak current had hit the Bamuni Hill on May 12 at about 9:28 am, which might have killed the elephants.

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The report also stated that post-mortem analysis found that the elephants died of a high voltage electric shock. Based on the findings that ruled out any kind of poisoning or disease, Deori concluded that these 18 elephants, consisting of 10 females and 8 males, including five calves, died accidently due to lightning.

“During the preliminary examination and while burying the elephants, we found charred remains of their body parts. Besides, we also recorded partially burnt vegetation in the site. However, we wanted to look at all the possibilities. Now we can say that a fatal lightning strike killed the elephants,” Deori told EastMojo

The veterinary scientists and experts found the elephant carcasses in an advanced stage of autolysis, indicating rapid decomposition in the post mortem report submitted to the Chief Wildlife Warden on May 27. The report states that detailed autopsy could not be conducted as most of the parts were already decomposed.

“Such rapid decomposition occurs among certain animals when they die due to poisoning or high voltage electric shock. Since the toxicology studies did not indicate any poison, we suspect it to be a lightning strike,” Dr. Bhaskar Choudhury, Deputy Director and Head Veterinarian of Wildlife Trust of India’s Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) told EastMojo. Choudhary and other veterinarians estimated that the elephants died between May 11 late night and early morning hours of May 12.

“We suspect that the death occurred 48 to 60 hours prior to the autopsy which was conducted on May 14 night,” added Choudhury. 

Scattered and absurd

Locals performed last rites for the 18 elephants that died in a suspected lightening strike last month (File photo)

Incidentally, as Suklabaidya announced the findings on Thursday, Apurva Ballav Goswami, an environmentalist and a journalist from Golaghat, reached Samaguri Police Station. Goswami visited the site near the Bamuni hill and conducted interviews with local residents.

“It does not appear that any trees have been hit by lightning and the elephant carcasses were scattered over a large area. Further, there is no statement by any inhabitants of villages close to the place of the occurrence that they had heard the noise of lightning. Importantly, such a theory of death by electrocution due to lightning is totally rejected and is termed absurd by many noted environmentalists and engineers,” Goswami stated in the FIR filed at Samaguri Police Station. 

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Goswami also named Azure Power Forty, a Delhi-based multinational solar power company, along with senior Assam government officials, including local forest rangers for the death of the elephants. In his complaint, Goswami accused the Area Manager of Azure Power Forty for obstructing the path of the elephants and their habitats by constructing a 90 MW solar power plant and committing various violations against the local residents. Samaguri police officials confirmed receiving Goswami’s complaint.

Incidentally, Deori, the forest official investigating various aspects of human-elephant conflict in the area that may have led to these deaths, found that the area is a thriving elephant habitat. In the report, Deori quotes Dr Smarajit Ojha, the former Chief Wildlife Warden and a Geography professor in Nowgong College, that the 18 elephants were a part of a larger domicile herd of about 20 to 30 elephants.

“The entire region starting from Doboka Reserve Forest in the West to Bagser Reserve Forest in the East then Kaziranga all along the hilly landscape border of Karbi Anglong and Nagaon districts comprises of elephant habitat. During winter season, i.e. November till mid-January, anywhere around 200 plus elephants used to be present in this landscape, feeding on ripe paddy they disperse into smaller herds like this unfortunate herd that got decimated,” the report states. 

Deori, however, maintains that the investigation was exclusively meant to ascertain if there was any foul play involved in the death of the elephants. On being asked if the presence of the Solar power company in the area had a role to play, Deori told EastMojo that construction of the solar power plant did not fall under the ambit of the investigation. 

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