Waiting for a scientific probe into Bamunipahar elephants’ tragedy

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By: Nava J. Thakuria
Many questions still remain unanswered by Assam forest department over the mysterious deaths (planned murders?) of 18 wild Asiatic elephants on Bamunipahar in Nagaon locality on 12th May (as the authority claimed) because the final report rested on the assumption (not scientific analysis) that the bulky animals died due to electrocution by a major thunderbolt.
Analysing many loopholes in the investigation report, which was prepared by a government formed committee and released by State forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya during a formal press conference on 3rd June in Guwahati, environment enthusiasts insisted on a high level scientific probe into the incident to unearth the real cause of those jumbos’ shocking bereavements.
Nature’s Beckon, an influential conservation group of northeast India, has lately urged State chief minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma to initiate a proper investigation into the matter. Its director Soumyadeep Datta, while expressing serious doubts over the probing process, emphasized on 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 in the probe committee.
Mentioning about the 90 pages investigation report, released after repeated demands from various organisations and environment enthusiasts, Datta termed it as ‘full of misinformation with a pile of unnecessary details added to make the document appears credible’. Moreover, the investigation process involved only veterinarians, who are directly or indirectly related to the forest department and all the tests were conducted in their own laboratories keeping no space for independent test-centers.
Minister Suklabaidya, form the very beginning, continues asserting that all the jumbos on Bamunipahar under Kundalini reserve forest in Nagaon district died of a massive thunderbolt. For the obvious reason, the departmental enquiry involved only two elephants for necessary dissections keeping as many as 16 animals out of any forensic examinations, claimed Nature’s Beckon’s director Soumyadeep Datta.
To prove that all the elephants died because of the electrocution by lightning, the ear-drums of the victims should have been examined. Moreover, the sensitive organ (to thunderbolt impact) like heart (of every elephant) was not thoroughly investigated. The committee mentioned that samples were collected randomly, but did not specify any carcass, which is nothing but an attempt to hide important evidences, asserted conservationist Bhaskar J Barua.
Barua, who is an engineering graduate and a member of Nature’s Beckon, asserted that the forest department’s report was ‘based on assumptions with no scientific analysis’. Nowhere does it say that lightning killed the elephants. Rather they assumed that lightning was the main culprit, said Barua adding that the leaked histopathology report also hinted for a tentative diagnosis of high voltage electrocution that killed the jumbos.
“But what is meant by the high voltage electrocution? How much high was the vault difference and what was the source of energy? Did the investigation included other mean (read human operated) of electrocution to kill all the elephants?” asked Barua adding no relevant tests (involving specific organs of all the victims) confirming the occurrence of lightning/thunderbolt were conducted in the area so far.
Novanita Sharma, another active member of the group, informed that the forest minister cleverly cited supports from some international organizations including IUCN regarding the department’s lightning theory but the released report (by himself on 3 June) did not carry any supporting document to prove his claim. She also stated that the forensic report also said that their thunderbolt theory was solely based on assumptions without any scientific evidences. Soon after the news broke on 13 May through various media outlets, sensations prevailed among the common people. Elephants are adored as a symbol of Lord Ganesh (also known as Ganapati and Vinayaka), the most worshipped son of Devi Parvati and Shiva Mahadev in Hindu mythology and many devotees of the neighborhood arrived at the remote location to pay their last respects to the dead. Later the elephants were buried with flower at the same place as the customary ritual. Minister Suklabaidya, who was assigned with the same portfolio under Sarbananda Sonowal’s cabinet during the last tenure of BJP led coalition government in Dispur, visited the site following the direction of CM Sarma and assured a thorough probe. But the forest department preferred to remain silent on making the post mortem reports public for many weeks. Rather a histopathology report surfaced in the social media claiming that those elephants succumbed to the high voltage electrical burns.
The single page report that started circulating since the morning of 24 May inspired many so-called experts to conclude that the jumbos were killed by a thunderbolt. Signed by professor SM Tamuli, Pathology department head and Pathology assistant professor A Deka (from College of Veterinary Science, Assam Agricultural University), the report came to the conclusion as a tentative diagnosis that lesions were suggestive of ‘high voltage electrical burn injury’.
The issue got public attention with a sharp statement from All Assam Engineer’s Association (AAEA), where it described the lightning argument as absurd. The forum of electrical, electronics, mechanical, etc, engineering graduates asserted that 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 the wildlife and human population.
The engineer’s forum argued that even the victim animals were assumed to be very close to each other during the incident (to get electrocuted at a time), their carcasses should have been found together, but in reality it was found that their bodies were seen scattered by around 100 meter. On the other hand, if the animals faced the thunderstrike as they were found lying on the ground, it needed a massive strike covering over a thousand square-meter area on the hillock.
“If intensity of the thunderbolt was so high, burns on the trees and even the topsoil could have been visible. But the specific site was enriched with its greenery as seen by the visitors. Moreover, residents of the adjacent areas could not remember such a lightning thunder two-three days prior to the recovery of elephant carcasses,” claimed the AAEA adding that the forum strongly preferred a scientific probe into the incident.
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 (around one billion volts of electricity) on the spot and it can heat the surrounding air up to 53000º Fahrenheit. Datta also had a pertinent question to ask, if the Bamunipahar area was an elephant habitat and a known animal corridor (as mentioned in the released 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 local youths urged the minister during his visit to the site to check the matter seriously, but why he did not pay attentions to them!
The solar power plant with the capacity of around 15 megaWatt at the foothills of Karbi Pahar recently received media’s low-key responses even after hundreds of marginal farmers in Mikir Bamuni grant village (under Samaguri revenue circle in Nagaon) continued protesting against the Azure Power Forty Private Limited, which allegedly grabbed their fertile land, cultivated by them for generations, for the project. 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 severe Covid-19 pandemic, the company also took possession of the land under police protections. Now the matter has reached Gauhati High Court, where the highest court in the State on 1 March ordered status quo on the matter. Now 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.
Lately, a conscious activist-journalist Apurba Ballav Goswami lodged a police complaint suspecting the probe conducted by the forest department and demanded an independent probe over the death of Bamunipahar elephants. He claimed that newly placed fencing of the power project blocked the herd’s traditional route and they took a detour to finally succumbed to the tragic death inspired by the human activities. (The author is a senior journalist with the background of engineering)

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