In what could be the first known instance of an entire pachyderm herd being wiped out in a lightning strike anywhere in the northeast, the corpses of 18 adult elephants were found scattered across a proposed sanctuary in central Assam’s Nagaon district on Thursday morning, hours after a storm blew over.
“Fourteen of the elephants were found dead atop a hill while the rest were at the foot of the elevated portion of the Kundoli reserve forest under Kathiatoli range,” principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) Amit Sahay said. “The animals were probably huddled together when a bolt of lightning struck during the severe storm on Wednesday night.”
Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma directed forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya to visit the area on Friday to oversee the investigation into how the herd died. While a preliminary probe by the forest department suggested the elephants were struck by lightning, a section of conservationists sought a detailed inquiry to rule out the possibility of the animals dying of some other cause.
Assam’s chief wildlife warden MK Yadava said he would be visiting Kundoli, around 125km from Guwahati, with a team of veterinary doctors on Friday to carry out the post-mortem.
Dr Rahul Mahanta of the physics department of Cotton University in Guwahati said the “thermodynamical character” of the atmosphere over the Brahmaputra Valley was conducive to severe thunderstorm activity at dawn that could lead to “explosive events”. “More storms occur in the afternoon as solar heating charges a higher number of particles, but these are comparatively weaker,” he said.
Rituraj Phukan, secretary general of the Green Guard Nature Organization, contested the theory that lightning killed the herd.
Phukan claimed the area had recently turned into a human-wildlife conflict zone, pointing to alleged encroachment on the reserve forest that is part of the Karbi Anglong foothills elephant corridor.