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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Assam elephant deaths: Post-mortem report confirms ‘accidental electrocution by lightning’

The investigating team also ruled out the role of any infectious pathological agent or toxin or poison in the deaths.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
June 3, 2021 9:45:29 pm
A woman offers flowers to the carcass of an elephant which died after being struck by lightening near Bamuni Hills in Kondoli, Nagaon district. (Express Photo)

The 18 elephants that were found dead atop a hill in Assam’s Nagaon district last month died due to “accidental electrocution by lightning,” authorities confirmed on Thursday.

The post-mortem was carried out by a six-member team of veterinarians headed by Deputy Conservator of Forests, K K Deori. The investigating team ruled out the role of any infectious pathological agent or toxin or poison in the deaths.

“The exhaustive report incorporating post mortem and reports from concerned agencies have proved beyond doubt that lightning caused the death of herd of elephants” tweeted Assam Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya.

In a statement, Suklabaidya said that the event is not attributed to “any retaliatory killing by poisoning or electrocution” but to accidental electrocution by lightning with a peak current of 39,000 Amperes in the wee hours of May 12.

On the intervening night of May 11 and 12, eighteen elephants (including five calves) died in the Bamuni hillock in the Kundoli Proposed Reserve Forest under the Kathiatoli range, situated close to the border of Nagaon and Karbi Anglong districts.

Following that, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma ordered an inquiry into the incident. The investigating team, which reached the site on May 14, was to submit a preliminary report within three days and a detailed investigation report within 15 days.

On May 27, the team submitted the post-mortem report to MK Yadava, Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam. The report, which was accessed by The Indian Express, said that a number of investigations, including toxicological and microbiology examinations as well as laboratory examinations, were carried out on the elephant samples.
The findings said that one of the carcasses had “charred marks” on the ear and a “burnt streak” over the left shoulder blade. Another had similar marks on its foot pad. The histopathology report said that the lesions were “suggestive of high intensity electrical burn injuries.”

The investigation team added that meteorological reports and local information from nearby villages indicated occurrence of lightning and thunderstorms throughout the week that led up to the incident.

“The total lightning flashes reached up to 350 numbers and CG (cloud to ground) flash were 150 in every two hours in between 2-6 UTC. That is a clear indication of the high flash rate over the area and severity of the storm,” said a preliminary technical report prepared by The North Eastern Space Applications Centre (NESAC), Umiam, Meghalaya, which analysed lighting incidents in the area where the elephants carcasses were found.

The report described the vegetation on the hilltop as “poor tree/canopy cover with majority of the area covered with bamboo patches and shrubs.” “We found a number of burnt trees, split down in the middle indicating that the area was struck by lightning,” said one of the veterinarians who investigated the incident.

On the site, trees bearing signs of lightning were found with “chipping and pealing of strips of barks, greying green colour of leaves with leaves rolled inwards.”

While, this is the first such incident in which 18 elephants have been struck by lightning at a go, such deaths have been reported earlier — in 2007, five elephants were killed in a similar incident in Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal.

Environmental activists in Assam have pointed out that the site where the animals have died is close (less than 1 km aerially) to the Mikir Bamuni cluster of villages, a disputed site where, since mid-2020, resident locals of the Adivasi and Karbi communities have been protesting the move of a private company to build a 16 MW solar power plant on 276 bighas of their land.

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