Death of 18 elephants in Assam points to the perils of exploitation of forests
Written By Anup Saikia
On May 12, 18 elephants were killed by lightning in Nagaon, Assam. Following the news of this herd’s tragic end, there was speculation as to whether anthropogenic factors rather than nature’s fury were at play. The reason behind such speculation is not far to seek: Twenty one elephants had been poisoned by locals in 2001-02 in Assam’s Sonitpur district, at the fringe of the Nameri national park. To point an accusing finger at local residents is, therefore, understandable. However, in this instance, it was lightning and not poisoning, that was the culprit, as the post mortem report of the team constituted by the Government of Assam pointed out.
The elephants, 13 sub-adults and five calves, ostensibly huddled together protectively in the storm, succumbed immediately to the ground current following the high-intensity bolt of lightning that struck at 9:28 am on May 12.
Instances of wildlife fatalities from lightning are not new. In 2016, 56 elk were killed by the ground current following lightning in the Colorado Rockies of the US. In the Alpine tundra grasslands of Norway’s Hardangervidda plateau, 323 wild reindeer were killed by a bolt of lightning, on August 29, 2016, that electrified a 165 feet stretch of earth. This area in Norway is not particularly known for high lightning activity. On the other hand, Northeast India is known to receive a high number of lightning flashes. It receives some of the highest precipitation in the world in the Cherrapunji-Mawsynram-Pnursula belt of southern Meghalaya. Assam too receives copious amounts of precipitation, has high humidity levels with moisture-laden air and local topography is often an amalgam of hills, plateaus and plains. All these go into creating conditions for lightning and thunderstorm activity, especially during the pre-monsoon months of April and May. With climate change having skewed the normally well-distributed precipitation regimes and extreme events with torrential precipitation occurring in shorter spells than before, intense lightning activity is commonplace. However, a lightning-induced current to the ground killing a herd of 18 elephants is indeed a rare and unfortunate occurrence that will remain an ignoble record of sorts for quite some time to come.
With some 5,700 elephants, Assam accounts for over a fifth of India’s elephant population. Where do Assam’s elephants find suitable habitats? In moderately-elevated forest areas that offer fodder, shelter and water. Forested areas in India range from reserved forests and wildlife sanctuaries to more well-protected national parks.
Being migratory creatures, elephants are known to follow traditional migratory routes. Often, these routes are no longer forested areas or safe corridors as forest degradation and losses become the order of the day and human encroachment spreads and slices into their habitat and through their migratory routes. When the paths of these pachyderms and humans intersect, it gives rise to human-elephant conflict. A herd of elephants can devastate a farmer’s fields and fragile livelihood overnight. Unfortunately, as food and fodder resources for elephants have shrunk due to deforestation, they are frequently forced out of their forest habitats, exacerbating human-elephant conflicts. As anthropogenic infrastructure spreads into hitherto forested landscapes in the form of roads, railways, electric and power lines, elephant fatalities have increased in Assam.
The hill, skirting the border of Nagaon and Karbi Anglong districts, on which the elephants were sheltering from the 12 May storm was bereft of tall trees and was not densely vegetated. Tall trees, like other elevated objects, are known to attract bolts of lightning. In the Kandali Proposed Reserve Forest, only short trees existing in a sparsely-wooded area, resulted in the ground getting electrified by the current. Had this hill been densely vegetated and possessed taller trees, perhaps these 18 young elephants may have been spared and not perished.
The Kandali forest, today largely shorn of vegetation, is emblematic of numerous forests in Assam. Forests and protected areas, in Assam and elsewhere in Northeast India have ended up on the short end of the stick as development, population pressure and the need to bring more land under the plough inexorably spiral. Elephant habitats and corridors are at consistently accentuated risk, as habitats and forest areas get further fragmented. Stone quarries and oil prospecting generate immediate revenues, whereas a few more or less, elephants do not cause any perceptible change to coffers. Likewise, the wider ramifications of the loss of a few thousand hectares of protected forest are, sadly, lost sight of. The exploitation of forest resources, rather than conservation, is what seems to pay in the short run. Such a myopic view needs to be changed and a greater emphasis on conserving our biodiversity must be given. Perhaps the time is ripe for Assam and its much-vaunted rhinos, tigers and elephants to be accorded more attention by the newly sworn-in ministry at Dispur. Will a push for conservation, in a better late than never scenario, now accrue?
The writer is professor of geography at Gauhati University
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