Mysterious deaths of 18 Elephants
Bhaskar J. Barua
A piece of unexpectedly tragic news pervaded the covid-stricken atmosphere of the state on the 12th of May. An alleged lightning strike at Bamuni Hills of Kandali PRF in Nagaon claimed the lives of eighteen elephants. This was an incident with no precedence, touching a raw nerve of the denizens of the state. Naturally, the first reaction was a niggling doubt on the possibility of a lightning strike killing eighteen massive giants.
And this doubt turned into dismay when the Forest Department constituted an enquiry committee with only veterinarians on it. No behavioural experts on elephants nor any geophysicists nor any electrical engineers nor any forensic experts were on the committee. Dismay turned into horror when the Minister and the Chief Wildlife Warden went on an overdrive to establish the lightning theory, even before the investigations ended.
The forest department is notorious for its opaque and high-handed ways and behaves as if they are the sole owners of our natural wealth rather than being just the custodians. They have stripped the Bamuni hills of thousands of teak plantations and dozens of stone quarries operate there with impunity and now they have surreptitiously allowed setting up of a 100-acre solar plant.
After the fiasco of the one-man committee investigating the Baghjan issue, nature lovers were already sceptical of the intent of the Forest department. Suspicion arose when they decided to cremate the elephants with tyres, disregarding all laid down norms. Why use tyres to cremate, instead of burying the elephants? Fortunately, environmentally conscious citizens of Nagaon thwarted this illegal attempt. The next suspicion was using salt in the burial pits. Was it to speed up the decomposition process? These two incidents on the very first day of the investigations suggest mitigating any evidence of foul play. Their inability to publish the detailed postmortem report of each of the elephants to date reinforces our doubts. Their attempt to mislead the public by leaking a histopathological report in the garb of a postmortem report further reinforces our doubts.
Nevertheless, let us assume the elephants died because of lightning. For that, we need to analyse the different ways in which lightning can be fatal?
A direct strike can kill one, or maybe one or two more, who were near the first elephant. 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. This tree is at an altitude of 254 meters, is an offshoot of a teak plant that was felled down, as mentioned above. 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 258-meter altitude. How is this possible? There are much taller trees in the vicinity upwards to the top of the hill at 279-metre altitude. 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 heatwave, 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.
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 veterinary findings. However, the department can re-constitute a committee with experts from various fields, as mentioned above, and try to arrive at a fair conclusion on what actually transpired on that fateful date. 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 veterinary findings. There is still time to reconstitute the investigation team comprising electrical engineers, geo-physicists, geologists, microbiologists, forensic experts from the crime branch, members of Project Elephant to complement the veterinary team, to work in tandem. Only such a team would help unearth the mystery behind the deaths in a scientific, transparent and conclusive manner and assuage all our fears and misgivings. To arrive at any definitive conclusion before any such combined efforts would be an insult to the scientific temperament in today’s world. And that is precisely what the Forest Department is trying to do – thwart the scientific temperaments, through their opaque and high-handed approach.
The investigation should also bring under their purview all the non-forestry activities which are flourishing near this prime elephant habitat. The case of the vanishing act of more than a thousand teak trees from the site of the incident calls for a parallel enquiry. The NOC to a solar power plant bang on this habitat is another case in point. We can say with certainty that corrupt officials of the Forest Department flourish in all glory when such illegal activities mushroom. Or is the Forest Department trying to hide certain unsavoury truths that might crop up with a proper investigation?
•Bhaskar J. Barua, Electrical Engineer, Wildlife Photographer and Conservationist
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