A herd of eighteen wild Asiatic elephants has been found dead in India’s northeastern state of Assam, possibly because of a huge lightning strike, local officials said on Friday.
Fourteen adult elephants were found dead by villagers on Thursday, and another four bodies were found scattered on the foothills of the Kundoli reserve forest area of Assam, 160km (99 miles) from the state capital of Dispur, local wildlife official MK Yadava said.
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The forest guard reached the remote area on Thursday and found 14 elephants dead atop a hill and four at its bottom at the reserve in Assam’s Nagaon district.
The state government ordered a high-level inquiry into the incident on Friday, Assam’s forest and wildlife minister Parimal Suklabaidya said.
“A preliminary report suggests the deaths could be due to lightning although we need to find out through forensic tests if there could be any other reason like poisoning or disease,” the minister added.
Locals who found the elephants said the animals could have been killed by a lightning strike late on Wednesday. A local forest ranger said the same thing, adding he had seen burnt trees in the area.
The ranger declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
But prominent conservationist Soumyadeep Datta, from environmental activist group Nature’s Beckon, said that was unlikely, based on social media images.
“Poisoning could be behind the death of the elephants,” Datta told AFP news agency. “We have to wait for the autopsy report, which the forest department will do soon.”
India is home to nearly 30,000 elephants, about 60 percent of the wild Asiatic elephant population. Of them, Assam is home to an estimated 6,000, who constantly come out of the forests in search of food.
Conservationists have urged the government to prevent encroachment of people and to establish free corridors for the elephants to move between forests safely.
In recent years, wild elephants have entered villages, destroyed crops and even killed people.