Could Lightning Kill 18 Elephants in a Single Strike?

Environmental disaster more likely due to poisoning, villagers say

By: Nava Thakuria

Authorities in the eastern Indian state of Assam are attempting to pass off the deaths of an entire herd of 18 Asiatic elephants as stemming from a single lightning strike on the night of May 12, an improbability that has outraged nearby villagers, who suspect the animals were poisoned or killed by other means to clear the area for a power project tabbed to occupy what was planned as an elephant preserve.

That a lightning strike could kill 18 dispersed elephants when villagers hadn’t even experienced a thunderstorm has raised the hackles of environmentalists and embarrassed State Environment and Forests Minister Parimal Suklabaidya, who visited the area shortly after the animals’ deaths and laid the disaster to weather, which was met immediately with scorn. The animals were scattered over a sizeable area on a hillock and neither their bodies nor the lush vegetation were scorched.

The Assam state gives shelter to around 6,000 wild Asiatic elephants. India as a whole is home to nearly 30,000 pachyderms, which often enter villages in search of food. Villagers tolerate them venerating elephants as a symbol of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god revered as the remover of obstacles; the patron of arts and sciences; and the deity in charge of intellect and wisdom. He is also the patron of letters and learning.

The site of the elephant deaths is near the Burha Pahar area, a part of India’s treasured Kaziranga National Park on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River. Hundreds of park visitors often crowd it to gape at the animals. The Kaziranga park, 430 sq km in area, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized as one of the world’s biggest reserves for wild and endangered animals.

A more likely suspect than lightning is a giant solar power plant owned by the NYSE-listed Azure Power, one of India’s leading solar producers, villagers and environmentalists say. The plant, with capacity of 15 megawatts in nearby foothills, has been the target of hundreds of marginal farmers who have continued a protracted protest against the seizure of their lands, which they say their families have cultivated for generations.

The conflict between wildlife and human activity is emblematic as India’s 1.3 billion population continues to expand, soon becoming the world’s most populous nation. Both villagers and commerce continue to encroach on territory formerly occupied only by animals. More than 1,000 people die each year from these collisions.

The US$400-million company, which according to its website has 5.1 gigawatts of solar power under construction across India, says it bought the land from the erstwhile landlord in August 2020. With India facing the severe effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the company took possession of the land under police protection. Nonetheless, Karbi and Adivasi villagers have fought for nearly a year for their land rights, with many jailed by the state government administration.

The matter reached the Gauhati High Court in the city of Guwahati, where the court ordered work stopped on the power plant, which occupies nearly 70 hectares of land.

“We opposed the project as it has been planned to erect in an elephant habitat,” said a local activist for Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), an influential NGO. “It is shocking how the project got a no-objection certificate from the forest department. We also do not subscribe to the lightning theory as a killer of 18 elephants,” added the activist.

He claimed to local media that what he called powerful people engaged with illegal tree felling and stone quarries were responsible for the killing of the animals, and demanded a thorough probe. The organization also demanded a return of the farmers’ land and a permanent stop to the construction of the solar project.

A committee comprising forest officials, wildlife specialists, veterinarians and others was expected to complete detailed investigations within a fortnight. But the postmortem is yet to be made public, raising suspicions. Wildlife protection bodies are demanding access to the reports in vain. Northeast India’s well-known nature conservationist Soumyadeep Datta is charging suspected foul play. The director of Nature’s Beckon, an environmental group, termed the thunderbolt theory as unacceptable.

“It is absurd,” said Er Kailash Sarma, president of the All Assam Engineer’s Association, which threw cold water on the lightning theory as having no scientific basis, derisively remarking that if such a massive thunderbolt had actually been generated, gloomy days are ahead for the wildlife and human populations. “We must consider it as a matter of serious concern and as a caveat to all of us, as it may repeat in future anywhere on the planet (if not in India).”

“Even were it to be assumed that all the victim animals were very close to each other during the incident, their carcasses could have been found together,” said AAEA secretary Er Inamul Hye adding, “in reality, it was not like that and their bodies were seen scattered.” AAEA is demanding a high-level scientific probe into the incident.

“It may be a case of poisoning or any other manmade conspiracy, as these kinds of incidents often take place in different parts of the Northeast,” said Datta, adding that the unusual delay of revealing the postmortem reports to the public definitely indicates there is something wrong.

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