Foul Play Suspected in Assam Elephant Deaths

Elephant Deaths and a Solar Project

Assam’s Forest Department is in the hot-seat over what locals say are suspicious elephant deaths, as 18 wild Asiatic elephants died at Bamunipahar in Nagaon, Northeast India. The forest department claims the elephants died “mysteriously” on May 12. Locals suspect foul play and a coverup by the department that approved a massive solar project in the elephant habitat.

A Forest Department report into the elephant deaths was based on an assumption that the animals all died due to electrocution in a major thunderbolt. Locals note that this assumption is not a scientific analysis, and local conservation groups are understandably skeptical.

State Forest Department Report

The forest department’s investigation report into the elephant deaths was prepared by a committee formed by the government department. The report was released by Parimal Suklabaidya, the State forest minister, at a formal press conference on 3 June in Guwahati, Assam.

Environmentalists reviewed the department’s report, declaring they found “many holes” in the Forest Department’s conclusions. They insisted an independent high level scientific probe be conducted into the incident to discover the real cause of the elephant deaths.

The Bamunipahar area is a known elephant habitat and animal corridor, according to both Nature’s Beckon, an influential conservation group in northeast India. The Forest Department’s own report recognizes that fact.

Soumyadeep Datta, a director of Nature’s Beckon seriously doubted the veracity of the government report. The group urged State chief minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma to initiate a proper investigation into the matter.

Mr. Datta insisted that experts from the fields of Geology, Electrical Engineering, Science of Lightning, Zoological Survey of India, Wildlife Institute of India, and the Police department be included in the investigation.

elephant tragedy on hillside. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria.
Dead elephants on hillside. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria.

Surveying The Scene

While surveying the site where the elephants died, spread out across a hilltop, some people voiced their opinion that the deaths may have actually been planned intentionally.

One reason for the skepticism over the veracity of the report is that the forest department previously issued a no-objection certificate for a major solar power project in the locality. When the minister visited the site, locals urged him to take the matter seriously, but he appeared to brush off their calls.

The Forest Department’s 90-page investigation report was released after repeated demands from concerned organisations and environment enthusiasts. Soumyadeep Datta slammed the report as “full of misinformation with a pile of unnecessary details added to make the document appear credible.”

The investigation process was revealed to only involve veterinarians directly or closely related to the forest department. In addition, all the tests were conducted in their own laboratories, allowing no access for independent test centers.

Minister Suklabaidya, from the very beginning, asserted that all the elephants died after a massive thunderbolt hit. Concerned groups noted that the departmental enquiry involved only two elephants for dissection. 16 other animals were not forensically examined, according to Nature’s Beckon’s director, Soumyadeep Datta. The dead animals were located hundreds of metres apart.

Datta suggested that the ear-drums of the deceased elephants should have been examined. The report revealed that other organs sensitive to thunderbolt impact such as the hearts of every elephant were not thoroughly investigated. If all the elephants died because of electrocution by lightning, multiple organs in every elephant would have been affected.

The department’s investigating committee mentioned that samples were collected randomly, but did not specify any carcass. Observers such as conservationist Bhaskar J Barua suspect this was an attempt to hide important evidence in the elephant deaths.

Barua, 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,” Barua said. He added that a leaked histopathology report also hinted at a tentative diagnosis of high voltage electrocution killed the elephants.

The one-page histopathology report started circulating on 24 May. It inspired many so-called experts to conclude that the elephants 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.”

people investigate dead elephants. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria.
People investigating dead elephants. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria.

Hindu Mythology Reveres Elephants

The initial news of the elephant deaths broke on 13 May through multiple media outlets. Newspaper readers were skeptical about the stated cause of death and there was disbelief. Throughout India, 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.

Many hindu devotees in the neighborhood traveled to the remote location to pay their last respects to the dead. The elephants were subsequently buried with flowers, a customary ritual.

The All Assam Engineer’s Association (AAEA) described the theory of lightning causing the elephant deaths “absurd.” Members of this association are electrical, electronics, and mechanical engineering graduates. Many of them asserted that if such an unprecedented massive thunderbolt had struck that night and killed all of the giant animals outright, then the wildlife and human populations would be in grave danger.

The engineers’ forum argued that even if the victim animals were assumed to be very close to each other during the incident (to all be electrocuted at the same time), their carcasses should have been found together, but in reality it was found that their bodies were seen scattered by around 100 meters. 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.

Man paying respects to dead elephants. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria
Man pays respects to dead elephants. Photo c/o Nava Thakuria

Large Scale Solar Project

Nature’s Beckon director Soumyadeep Datta was concerned that although being known as elephant habitat and a known animal corridor, the Bamunipahar area was approved for a large-scale solar project by the Forest Department. The power company, Azure Power Forty Private Limited received a no-objection certificate from the government that prevented any objections.

It is interesting to note that the forest department’s report even stated that the area was known elephant habitat and an animal corridor.

Documents show the planned solar power plant will have a capacity of around 15 megaWatt in the foothills of Karbi Pahar. The project received little coverage from local media even after hundreds of farmers in Mikir Bamuni grant village protested against Azure Power Forty Private Limited.

It was alleged Azure Power Forty forcibly acquired the fertile land the farmers’ families had cultivated for generations, for the project. The complete project covers and area of 276 bighas of land. A report by Delhi=based Delhi Solidarity Group documents this as a “land grab” (PDF) perpetrated by the company.

Residents of Mikir Bamuni Grant … shared their testimonies of loss, deceit and struggle with members of the Committee were an integral voice in the conflict. We are deeply grateful to Kawe Ingtipi, Makhuni Mardi, Bor Sing Kro, Rajan Hansda, Karan Timung, Sing Teron and several others who shared their stories with us, and recounted harrowing testimonies of harassment at the hands of police and state authorities during the course of past two years.

A group of Karbi and Adivasi villagers have been fighting for their land rights and many of the protesters were even jailed 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 protection.

After passing through lower courts, this matter reached Gauhati High Court. The State’s highest court ordered status quo on the matter on 1 March this year. Since that time, construction work on the power plant has been stopped.

The State forest department may think this is the end of the matter, but the tragedy of the elephant deaths will not be dismissed lightly.

Nava Thakuria

Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based journalist, who contributes to NewsBlaze and various media outlets throughout the world.