The tragic news of the death of 18 elephants in Bamuni Hills of Kandali PRF in Assam’s Nagaon on 12 May reportedly due to a lightning strike brought in a pall of gloom.
An incident with no precedence in this part of the world, the news touched a raw nerve among nature lovers all across the globe.
The Assam Forest Department, notorious for obfuscating facts, immediately went on an overdrive with a well-managed narrative about the lighting theory, even before an investigation could get underway.
It formed an enquiry committee with a team of veterinarians on their payroll and their associate NGOs. There was no lightning expert geo-physicist, electrical engineer, elephant expert, forensic expert, or representative of the Wildlife Institute of India, Wildlife Crime Bureau, or any member of the Project Elephant Steering Committee on the team.
They first attempted to erase all evidence of foul play by burning the carcasses with vehicle tyres. Fortunately, the youths of the area thwarted this attempt.
"“We visited the crime scene and found no tell-tale signs on the ground to prove that the elephants died due to lightning. There were no indications that the elephants died because of a direct flash or a side flash or because of a step potential caused by a cloud to ground strike. Rather, we discovered sacks full of salt at the burial ground.”"
This clearly proves that they were more focused on disposing of the carcasses rather than arriving at the truth. This was clear evidence of a cover-up. They did not even mark the burial spots to ensure that future investigations, if any, would come to a nought.
The department had initially announced a preliminary report within three days of the probe and a detailed report within a fortnight.
Instead, they started their game of selectively leaking documents and appearing on television shows to propagate their ‘lightning theory’ with no scientific basis.
However, Nature's Beacon, a premier environment activists’ group from North-east India and conscious citizens forced the department to publish the post-mortem report. And when the report finally came out on the 4th of June, its web of lies and deceit came to the fore.
Why the Report Is Just a Cover-Up of a Pack of Lies?
The report states that the incident had occurred at a small flat plateau on the hilltop at an altitude of 790 feet MSL (mean sea level), which translates to 240.79 metres. But the same report said that they had found seven carcasses above this height (carcasses 1 to 6 and carcass 8), ranging from 791.7 feet to 799.9 feet. Are we to assume that the carcasses were floating above the hilltop?
It then says that the oldest female in the herd was 10 years old and there were five calves aged between one and two. Are we to assume that this 10-year-old gave birth to five calves? If not, where are the mothers? If lightning killed all the elephants, why and how did the mothers survive and where are they now?
The report went on to state that the department had buried 14 elephants on 14 May. The million-dollar question is, what did they do with the remaining four carcasses?
"“They (forest officials) also said in the report that they had collected water samples from a pond, but provided no clue about the location of this so-called pond, nor is there any photographic evidence to justify their statement. There was no countersign from witnesses.”"
The meteorological data in the report is an unsigned document with no proof of official communication with the agency that prepared the report. Moreover, the report does not mention the name of any scientist who had conducted the tests.
This report admitted that the lightning location accuracy is approximately one kilometre and that “... it appears that a lightning might have hit the tree...”. So, even this report was not conclusive but full of assumptions.
However, the shocker was the report of the veterinarians stating their inability to conduct a detailed post-mortem analysis because the carcasses underwent advanced autolysis (destruction of a cell through the action of its own enzymes). How could this have been possible within 48 hours?
All these are clear indications of an ulterior motive behind this ‘mass murder’ of elephants and the enquiry committee was a farce of the highest order.
The first effect of lightning would have been shattered eardrums and ruptured heart and arteries. But it (enquiry committee) left eardrums and heart samples out from the purview of the tests because they knew that this was not a case of lightning.
It described the hill as a degraded forest with a very poor tree canopy but conveniently failed to mention that they had stripped the hill of thousands of teak trees and that the place and its adjoining hills were being mercilessly mined for stones.
"“Its (probe panel’s) histopathological study states that the report was a tentative diagnosis. Why were the samples not sent to the Wildlife Institute of India or the Gujarat State Forensic Laboratory who are better equipped than our state government-owned forensic laboratory?”"
It stated that the entire area is an elephant habitat. If so, how did the department allow the construction of a 15 MW Solar Power plant right in the middle of the habitat? Or for that matter, how did they allow a sprawling resort of around 100 acres to come up in the area?
The report also stated that they had found a burn injury on a carcass lying 113 feet away. It is strange that carcass 4 lying next to the tree – which, they claimed, was struck by the lightning – did not show any burn marks and instead found it on a carcass lying so far.
It is very clear from the above observations that the department all along tried to mislead the public by embarking on a massive cover-up operation.
In short, they did everything in their capacity to erase all traces of evidence. There are certainly more questions than answers in their craftily managed report.
( Bhaskar J Barua is a Wildlife Photographer, Electrical Engineer and Conservationist. He tweets @bjbkaziranga. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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