Did lightning actually kill the eighteen elephants in Assam?

Did lightning actually kill the eighteen elephants in Assam?

Eighteen Elephants killed in Assam: The news

A sweeping sadness pervaded across the globe when news percolated about the death of eighteen elephants at Bamuni Hills under Kandali proposed Reserved Forest in Nagaon district in Assam. The Forest Department of Assam was quick to create a narrative that the elephants died of lightning, even before any investigations were underway. This and their subsequent actions made us suspicious.

That lightning killed the elephants is suspect

A. The constitution of the enquiry committee

On the 13th of May, the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state formed an enquiry committee under Section 50 (8) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, comprising eight veterinarians of the State Government and two from their associate NGOs. There were no Electrical Engineers, Lightning Professionals, Physicists, Geo-physicists, forensic and Crime Branch Personnel, members from organisations like Wildlife Institute of India, Project Elephant and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, and members of local environmental groups. How on earth can a team of veterinarians decipher an incident of lightning? Was the department keen to unearth the truth, or was it simply a cover-up exercise? 

B. Attempt to cremate the carcasses with vehicle tyres

A most shocking attempt at destroying all evidence on the ground started right on the 14th of May in the presence of the concerned minister and top Forest Officials. Against all norms, they tried to burn the corpses with vehicle tyres. We may mention here that the Wildlife Protection Act of India recognises elephants as Schedule I(A) species. Fortunately, the local youths and environmentally conscious citizens of Nagaon thwarted this blatant attempt. What were they trying to hide?

Undaunted, the Chief Wildlife Warden and a couple of his cronies, who masquerade as Elephant and GIS experts, went on a publicity overdrive to propagate the lightning theory. They even accused us of being conspiracy theorists. They highlighted a partially burnt small tree as evidence of lightning.

C. Did Lightning kill the elephants? What do our own investigations reveal?

Wary of the intent of the probe team and their findings, we visited the site to investigate on our own for any traces of lightning. We scrutinised the place of occurrence in minute details and found the following:

i. There is no evidence that lightning killed the elephants

A direct lightning strike can kill one, or maybe one or two more if the elephants were touching each other. But it surely can’t kill 18 elephants spread out over a large area. The presence of trees, taller than the elephants, negates this possibility. It would be absurd to assume that 18 separate flashes killed them.

The Department is highlighting a tree allegedly struck by lightning, suggesting that a side-flash killed the elephants. There are many bigger and taller trees near this tree and all these were at a higher altitude than this tree. Close examinations revealed that the lightning, or remnants of it, hit the tree at about 6 feet from the ground. Side-flash travels downwards from the point of impact, but there were dead elephants at altitudes higher than the tree. How is this possible? We all know that lightning strikes the tallest object. So the possibility of lightning striking a much shorter tree is absurd.

The possibility of a touch potential killing the elephants is impossible because it would be absurd to assume that all the elephants touched the affected tree at the same time.

Upward streamers can also prove fatal to animals, but it is a rare phenomenon, and the spread of dead bodies across a wide area negates this possibility as well.

So the only possibility left would be a step potential generated because of a cloud to ground strike. This is the most common lightning hazard for animals. Since we are talking about the death of 18 gigantic animals, the intensity of the strike would have been massive. The resultant heat wave, measuring over 50,000 ° Fahrenheit, which is about four times the heat of the sun, would burn the entire topsoil and the associated greenery, like grasses and shrubs. All the micro-organisms present in the soil would perish. But there is no evidence to suggest this theory as well.

ii. Mandatory tests for lightning not done

To understand the phenomenon of lightning and to investigate its possibility, one needs to test the soil resistivity, morphological changes on the topsoil, etc. apart from the post-mortem analysis of the carcasses. Since there were no geologists or geophysicists, there was no one in the investigation team to carry out these tests. 

iii. Stone quarries, Solar Power Plant and deforested hill

The hill where the elephants died and the surrounding hills are barren, with no tree cover. Someone has cleared the hills of thousands of teak trees. Many stone quarries are operating there with impunity. A 15 MW Solar Plant have sprung up last year in this prime elephant habitat. Why did the Forest Department provide environmental clearance for this plant? Why are they allowing the stone quarries to operate? Who felled the trees?

iv. Bags full of Salt at the site of the incident

We came across sacks of salts strewn all over the place. For those of you who might be unaware, salt lets an extra dimension to the event.

a. We can use salt to attract any animals. Was salt used to lure the herd to the place?

b. Salt increases the conductivity of the soil. So if it was a case of murder by electrocution, salt can be very handy. 

c. Using salt in the burial pits speeds up the decomposition process. Why would the department want to accelerate a natural process? Was it to negate the possibility of any re-investigations at a later date?

So it was no surprise that we were very sceptical of the entire investigation process. But we still believed that a detailed post-mortem analysis would help shed at least some light on this tragedy of mammoth proportions.

Conscious citizens of the state, led by founder Director of Nature’s Beckon were vociferous in their appeal for a multi-expert probe panel. But the Forest Department didn’t pay any heed. 

Rather, the concerned Minister and the Chief Wildlife Warden carried on with their lightning narrative and boasted that they would publish the initial report within three days and the detailed report within a fortnight. Having closely watched the opaque way of functioning of the Forest Department, we kept a close vigil on their actions and warned them repeatedly to publish the reports in time. But the Forest Department does what it wells – obfuscate the facts and confuse the public by resorting to technical jargons. And this is what they did. They selectively leaked a histopathological analysis of an ear pinna of an elephant, which suggested a tentative diagnosis of death by high voltage electrocution. The report had no details about the age, sex, height, etc. of the elephant being studied. Nor do they mention what is the range of voltage they meant by high voltage. And true to their infamy, they failed to make public their findings within a fortnight, inviting vociferous protests from all quarters. Forced into a corner, they reluctantly released a 90-page report after twenty-two days. And that is when the cat tumbled out of the cupboard.

D. Analysis of the Investigation Report: A few salient points

i. Age of the elephants killed

They claimed that the eldest female in the herd of eighteen was ten years old. There were five infants – two one-year-olds and three two-year-olds. How on earth can a ten-year-old be the mother of five calves? If not, what happened to the mothers? How did they survive the lightning and where are they? There were also six other elephants aged between five and six. How can the lightning scenario be possible in the light of these findings?

ii. Altitude Mismatch

The report states that the place of occurrence is at the top of the hill at an altitude of 790 feet. But interestingly they also state that they found seven elephants above the peak. Were these seven elephants hanging in mid-air? 

iii. Four elephants gone missing

They also state that they buried fourteen elephants. What did they do with the remaining four carcasses?

iv. Water Sample

They said that they collected water samples from a nearby pond to investigate if there was any evidence of poisoning. But they fail to mention the location of the pond, nor do they present any photographic evidence of doing so. There are no countersignatures of witnesses while collecting the water sample. 

v. Meteorological Data

A very interesting part of their investigation report is an unsigned document, purportedly submitted by the North Eastern Space Application Centre (NESAC) stating that a 33 Kilo Ampere negative lightning struck the place of occurrence. There is no official seal in the document, nor does it mention the name of any officials of the organisation who carried out this analysis. There are no official communications with the organisation, asking them for analysis. Interestingly, the same document also states that their level of accuracy in finding the location of a lightning strike is approximately one kilometre. How can we conclude the case of lightning with such half-baked data, especially when there is no evidence on the ground? Moreover, the most pertinent question is why would the Forest Department not approach the India Meteorological Department to examine the possibility of a lightning strike? 

vi. Postmortem Analysis

But the icing on the cake of the mammoth 90-page report is the statement of the veterinary doctors who stated that they couldn’t carry out a detailed post-mortem analysis because the carcasses underwent advanced autolysis. They took random samples from a couple of carcasses. How are we to believe this when they have been claiming that the time of death was within forty-eight hours? They did not test the eardrums, nor did they test the heart of all things. The esteemed veterinarians have sold their soul to the corrupt Forest Department, and we can do nothing but hang our heads in collective shame. 

D. The Conclusion

From all these, we believe there was a deep-rooted conspiracy to kill the elephants and the Forest Department, to cover up their acts of omissions and commissions started this narrative to mislead the nature loving community across the globe. The illegal way in which the department certified that this place is not a notified elephant corridor to pave the way for constructing a 15 MW Solar Plant in the area, is a proof of their complicity in the murder. Interestingly, their report now states that the entire area is an elephant habitat. The presence of illegal stone quarries, the stripping of the hill and the adjoining hills of all the valuable teak trees, their effort to burn the carcasses with tyres, the presence of salt in the place of occurrence and their eyewash of an investigation – all these are pointers to their guilt.

We urge all nature loving people in the world to lodge a vehement protest against the mass murder of elephants. We demand the reconstitution of a multi-disciplinary expert investigation committee to probe the case further, and if evidences have been destroyed, the perpetrators of this act be identified and punished. All Government and non-Government individuals involved in this cover-up should stand exposed and tried for criminal offences for obstructing justice.

But the icing on the cake of the mammoth 90-page report is the statement of the veterinary doctors who stated that they couldn’t carry out a detailed post-mortem analysis because the carcasses underwent advanced autolysis. They took random samples from a couple of carcasses. How are we to believe this when they have been claiming that the time of death was within forty-eight hours? They did not test the eardrums, nor did they test the heart of all things. The esteemed veterinarians have sold their soul to the corrupt Forest Department, and we can do nothing but hang our heads in collective shame. 

This article is also available in https://kazirangafoundation.com

Bhaskar J Barua

Bhaskar J. Barua is the founder of Agoratoli Resort and co-founder of Kaziranga Foundation and Kaziranga Organics. He is passionate about wildlife conservation, empowerment of locals, ecotourism, and wildlife photography. Having lived in Agoratoli from 2010, he is closely associated with the local community of the fringe areas of Kaziranga. He believes in empowering the local community for conservation works through ecotourism and sustainable agriculture.
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