The drone has been up since morning circling over the Bamuni Topotjuri hill in Nagaon district bordering Karbi Anglong. It is out on a recce to see if more elephants may have died.
Below, a woman lit up a clutch of incense sticks and planted it on the ground near the carcasses of a couple of elephants. Eighteen elephants are suspected to have died when lightning struck the area on Wednesday morning.
A forest official estimated the herd to have consisted of around 40 elephants. “We are checking whether more may have died,” he said.
“ I have never seen such a thing before. We used to monitor this herd. They were very docile, never harmed people or destroyed their houses,” a forest guard said breaking down. “It is said there were over a lakh elephant during the days of the British, but now we are left with only about 6,000 and if they continue to die like this they will soon disappear,” he said. He said there must be a thorough investigation and if it is found that the reason behind their death is poisoning then the guilty must be awarded exemplary punishment.
While 14 carcasses were found on the hilltop scattered in groups of twos and threes in close proximity, four were found down the hill about half a kilometre away. Among the 18 were four calves.
The forest official said that the personnel of the tea garden in the area informed them yesterday about the four carcasses. “We then looked around and climbed up to the top and found these 14 others,” he said.
The hilltop teemed with personnel from the forest department and veterinary officials conducting examinations to ascertain the cause and circumstances leading to the kind of mass deaths that have never been reported in the state earlier. Local residents were also present to lend a helping hand in any possible manner.
A couple of partially cracked and charred trees would indicate that lightning may have been the cause, but all are not convinced, particularly since the two groups of carcasses were apart from each other. Besides, wildlife has been known to have died from poisoning in tea gardens as they use pesticides and insecticides to protect the crop.
Assam forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya, who also visited the site, said that there should have been some signs of struggle if the elephants had died of poisoning. “But it looks like death was instant,” he said seemingly inclined towards the lightning theory. “But let us wait for the post mortem and other reports,” he said.
The government has appointed an inquiry officer and set up a team of seven veterinarians. The investigating officer will have to submit his report within seven days while the veterinary team has been asked to submit a preliminary report within three days and the final report within 15 days.
Meanwhile, the forest personnel were confronted with the question of disposal of the carcasses, particularly the ones lying at the hilltop. Two earthmovers have been pressed into action for the purpose, but there was no certainty these would be able to help much.