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Death Of Wild Elephants Cause Many Questions In Assam – OpEd

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Many questions, raised after the incident of mysterious deaths related to 18 wild Asiatic elephants in Bamunipahar in the Nagaon locality of central Assam on 12 May 2021, still remain unanswered for the environmentalists of India. Assam forest department tried to quench the debates with a report that the bulky animals died due to electrocution by a major thunderbolt, but it only elongates the issue.

The shocking incident took place inside Kundoli proposed reserve forest under Kothiatali range in Nagaon-Karbi Anglong bordering hills and came to light on 13 May when some forest dwellers witnessed the carcasses. By the afternoon hours, the news broke out in local and national-international media outlets, compelling the State government to take the matter seriously.

Assam chief minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, who took the oath on 10 May as the head of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led coalition government in Dispur immediately asked State Environment & Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya to visit the location. Accordingly, he arrived at Bamunipahar on 14 May and ordered  a probe to be conducted by  forest officer KK  Deori led a seven-member committee.

By then sensations spread among the people as the elephants are largely adored as the symbol of Lord Ganesh (Ganapati or Vinayaka), one of the most worshipped deities in India. Admired son of Devi Parvati and Shiva Mahadev, Ganesh Prabhu is revered as the remover of all obstacles and a patron to arts and wisdom by millions of devotees.

Many persons from the neighborhood even arrived to pay last respects the victims, who were buried with flowers at the  same place as a customary ritual.

Suklabaidya, who served the same portfolio under Sarbananda Sonowal’s cabinet during the last tenure of BJP led government, maintained his view that the pachyderms were killed by a thunderbolt. But his comments were promptly decried by All Assam Engineer’s Association (AAEA), a forum of electrical, electronics, mechanical, etc engineering graduates as an absurd argument.

In its sharp and methodological reaction, the association pointed out that the victim animals were assumed to be very close to each other during the lightning strike, but their carcasses were not found together but scattered. If the elephants faced the lighting strike as they were found lying on the ground, it needed a massive thunderbolt covering over a thousand square-meter area on the hillock, added the statement.

Engineering science narrates that a lightning strike, created by the electrical discharges due to imbalances caused between the Earth and storm clouds (or within the clouds), can produce  40 kiloVault to 120 kV and 5 kiloAmpere to 200 kA producing an intense sound (up to 200 dB). A lightning bolt (from cloud to ground) may generate around 1,000,000,000 Watt  on the spot and it can heat the surrounding air up to 29426º Celsius.

When the cloud-to-ground lightning hit an animal, it creates sudden disturbance to the internal electric signals of a living being, which is otherwise essential for operating organs like heart, lungs along with the nervous system. Normally the animal faces a cardiac arrest, brain Injuries, spinal cord damages or severe burns and subsequently it collapsed within a short time. Thus, the victim does not get time to get separated or take a position.

“We demand a high-level scientific probe into the incident to understand its ramification. If, at all, such a massive thunderbolt had stricken on Earth that night to kill the giant animals within a second, then gloomy days are ahead of wildlife and  the human race too,”  stated the AAEA apprehending that similar thunderbolts may strike again in future to create enormous damage to the planet.

Nature’s Beckon, an influential bio-diversity conservation group of northeast India, then took the lead of public resentments against the State forest department. Considering the Asiatic elephants are a Schedule 1 species and duly safeguarded by  the Wildlife Protection Act  1972, it organized a webinar on 28 May involving experts on thunder (lightning) science, electrical engineering, elephant conservation, etc to understand the Bamunipahar elephant tragedy.

Various thought-provoking interpretations came out in the webinar, conducted by Nature’s Beckon’s director Soumyadeep Datta, where the speakers outrightly rejected the lightning theory as primary causes of the herd’s appalling deaths. Bubul Sharma, a native of the area and secretary of Green Nature, claimed that the elephants normally stay little apart from each other during the summer days and hence one thunderbolt had not killed all the elephants.

Petro-physician Pradip Saikia in his observation commented that during an incident of lightning, one does not get time to change its position, as the thunderbolt collapses the victim’s heart and nervous system. In the Bamunipahar incident, victim elephants got sufficient time to die and more importantly there was no visible sign of burn injury on the carcases. Moreover, the fresh and green leaves on the site were visible, he stated.

Manash Lochan Das, who has grown up with domesticated elephants, also disagreed with the lightning theory citing the position of dead elephants. He argued that the Samboith position is otherwise a difficult exercise for elephants to pursue. Moreover, bubbles from the mouth of some elephants do not justify that they died of electrocution because of lighting, he asserted. Elephant expert Dwipen Chandra Kalita also echoed similar views.

An IIT Roorkee scholar Sanjan Hazarika opined that the dead elephants were found in a scattered position and in such a situation it is difficult to admit that they were killed by  a lightning strike. A powerful thunderbolt may kill four to five elephants and chances of repeated lightning over the same place (to increase the casualties) can not be acceptable under any scientific argument, asserted Hazarika.

Meanwhile, minister Suklabaidya released findings of the probe committee in a formal press conference on 3 June, where he again claimed that the Bamunipahar elephants were killed by the lightning. His claim was sharply rejected by conservationist Datta terming the committee’s 90-page investigation report  as  full of misinformation with a pile of unnecessary details added to make the document appears credible.

“The probe committee did not have members from the backgrounds of engineering, lightning science, geo physics, forensic, etc, but only the veterinarians, who are directly or indirectly engaged with the forest department. Moreover, all the tests were conducted  in their own laboratories keeping no space for independent test-centres,” claimed Datta adding that the people of Assam would not receive such a flawed report.

Environmentalist Bhaskar J Barua also came out heavily against the report saying that it is not based on scientific analysis. Nowhere does it say that lightning killed the elephants, rather they assumed that lightning was the main culprit, stated Barua, who is an electrical engineer by formal education, adding that no relevant tests (involving specific organs of all the victims) confirming the occurrence of lightning/thunderbolt were conducted in the area.

Novanita Sharma, a young wildlife activist, claimed that the forest minister cleverly cited supports from some international organizations including IUCN regarding the department’s lightning theory but the released report  did not carry any supporting document to prove the minister’s claim. She also stated that the forensic report also said that their thunderbolt theory was  based on assumptions only.

Datta also had a pertinent question, if the Bamunipahar area was an elephant habitat and a known animal corridor (as mentioned in the released probe report), how the forest department could provide a no-objection certificate to a giant solar power project coming up in the locality! Moreover, he added, a group of locals urged minister Suklabaidya during his visit to the site to consider the issue seriously, but why he did not listen to them.

The concerned solar plant with the capacity of around 15 megaWatt at the foothills of Karbi Pahar recently drew the attention  of some media outlets after hundreds of marginal farmers in Mikir Bamuni grant village (under Samaguri revenue circle) continued protest-demonstrations against the Azure Power Forty Private Limited, which allegedly grabbed their fertile land, cultivated by those families for generations, for the venture.

For over a year, a group of Karbi and Adivasi villagers are fighting for their land rights and many of the protesters were even put behind the bars by the administration. The 400-million-dollar company claimed it bought the land from the erstwhile landlord’s (zamindar) family in August 2020. When India was facing the first wave of  Covid-19 pandemic, the company also took possession of the land under police protections.

Lately, the matter has reached Gauhati High Court, where the highest court in the State on 1 March ordered status quo on the matter. Presently,  the construction works of the power plant, put up in a campus of over 276 bighas of land by the company (claimed by the Saket-New Delhi based  corporate office to be a dedicated solar power company with a journey spanning over a decade), has been ceased.

Aranya Surakhya Samity, another environment protection group, also organized a webinar on 5 June (world environment day), where various speakers referred to the Bamunipahar tragedy urging the government for an authentic probe into the incident. Reporter turned wildlife activist, Haricharan Das, who leads the group, officially demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe to resolve the mystery and punish the culprits if it is established as a men-made disaster.

Dissatisfying with the activities of forest department,  a journalist turned environmentalist from Golaghat, Apurva Ballav Goswami filed a complaint at Samaguri police station. After visiting the site and interviewing a number local residents in Tapatjuri area, Goswami was convinced that it is not a case of lighting rather a planned murder to erase the animals. He emphasized on covering other factors including the power project, stone queries, etc in the area for the investigation process.

Recently, a Guwahati based nationalist journalist Biswajit Nath approached Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the demand for a comprehensive investigation into the matter. He echoed the apprehension of several environment enthusiasts and qualified engineers that Bamunipahar elephants did not die because of any natural cause, rather the gigantic animals were eliminated by some greedy humans.

Lately, Nature’s Beckon framed serious allegations that the departmental enquiry involved only two elephants for necessary dissections keeping as many as 16 animals out of any forensic examinations. Finally it urged CM Sarma to initiate a proper investigation into the matter involving experts from the fields of Geology, Electrical Engineering, Science of Lightning (Thundering) along with Zoological Survey of India,  Wildlife Institute of India, Police department etc,.

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Nava Thakuria

Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati (Assam, Northeast India) based journalist

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