Bhaskar J. Barua,
Electrical Engineer, Wildlife Photographer and Conservationist
Can lightning kill 18 elephants? Yes, it can, but there are a lot of caveats and even more questions. For instance, was this a case of positive or negative lightning?
Positive lightning, though accounting for only about 5% of all lightning cases, is much more lethal, generating a massive billion volts and 300 Kilo Amperes, compared to about 300 million volts and 30 Kilo Amperes with a negative flash. While positive flash generates only one stroke, negative flash can generate two or more strokes. But the most relevant point is that positive flashes occur more during winters while negative flashes occur during summers. So we can safely assume that in the present context, it could have been a negative lightning flash.
Next, we need to analyse how a lightning flash can kill the elephants?
A direct strike can kill one elephant or maybe another one or two who were in touch with the first. But it surely can’t kill 18 elephants spread out over a large area. This was not an open field where the elephants were the only tall objects. The presence of trees, taller than the elephants, negates this possibility. It would be absurd to assume that 18 separate flashes, spread over a large area struck these unfortunate victims directly.
The Forest Department is highlighting a tree allegedly burnt and split longitudinally because of a lightning strike, suggesting that a side-flash may have killed the elephants. This tree is at an altitude of 254 metres.
However, the caveat is, to date, there have been no investigations to confirm that lightning struck this tree on THAT fateful date. However, assuming that lightning DID affect this tree at that fateful moment, let us examine if a side-flash from this tree could have killed the elephants. This tree is an offshoot from a Teak plant that was felled down. The stem of this tree is around 5 feet, after which the stem forks out to two major branches, reaching a height of about 20 feet. Close examinations revealed that the lightning, or remnants of it, hit one branch at a height of about 6 feet from the ground. Since the side-flash would have travelled downwards from the point of impact, the death of elephants at an altitude of 258 meters would be impossible. Remember, we are talking about a slope. It is surprising that a much taller tree at the same 258-meter altitude, hardly 5 feet away from where the elephants lay dead, escaped the wrath of lightning. The tallest and the largest tree in the vicinity is at an altitude of 279 meters, the altitude of the table top of the hill. Logic defies why lighting would strike a much smaller tree and spare the larger ones. So we can safely negate this theory too.
The possibility of a touch potential killing the elephants is impossible because it would be absurd to assume that all the elephants touched the affected tree at the same time.
Upward streamers can also prove fatal to animals, but it is a rare phenomenon, and the spread of dead bodies across a wide area negates this possibility as well.
So the only possibility left would be a step potential generated because of a cloud to ground strike. This is the most common lightning hazard for animals. Since we are talking about the death of 18 gigantic animals, the intensity of the strike would have been massive. The resultant heat wave, measuring over 50,000 ° Fahrenheit, which is about four times the heat of the sun, would burn the entire topsoil and the associated greenery like grasses and shrubs. All the micro-organisms present in the soil would perish. But there is no evidence to suggest this theory as well.
So if lightning did not kill these gentle giants, what did?
The answer seems to hide beneath the farce created by the Forest Department, following the event. The concerned minister and the Chief Wildlife Warden showed undue haste to create a narrative from day one, with no verifiable scientific analysis, that lightning killed the elephants. They then ordered truckloads of tyres to burn the dead bodies, disregarding laid down protocols on disposal of carcasses of Schedule I species. Luckily, environmentally conscious citizens of Nagaon thwarted this illegal attempt. The presence of sacksful of salts in the tragedy’s aftermath adds an extra dimension to the whole affair. They formed an enquiry committee but then went on a publicity overdrive, to propagate their lightning theory even before the enquiry started. To understand the phenomenon of lightning and to investigate its possibility, one needs to test the soil resistivity, morphological changes on the topsoil, etc. apart from the veterinary findings. In the present case, the department did constitute a team of eminent veterinarians. But a team comprising electrical engineers, geo-physicists, geologists, microbiologists, forensic experts from the crime branch, members of Project Elephant and veterinary doctors, working in tandem, would have helped unearth the mystery behind the deaths in a scientific, transparent and conclusive manner. To arrive at any definitive conclusion before such combined efforts would be an insult to the scientific temperament in today’s world. And that is precisely what the Forest Department is trying to do – thwart the scientific temperaments, through their opaque and high-handed approach. They are behaving as if they are the sole owners of our natural wealth rather than being just the custodians, for which we pay them from the public exchequer.
We also need to have a closer look at all the non-forestry activities which are flourishing in the vicinity of this prime elephant habitat. The case of the vanishing act of more than a thousand teak trees from the site of the incident calls for a parallel enquiry. The NOC to a solar power plant bang on this habitat is another case in point. We can say with certainty that corrupt officials of the Forest Department flourish in all glory when such illegal activities mushroom. Or is the Forest Department trying to hide certain unsavoury truths that might crop up with a proper investigation? And thus the delay in the detailed post-mortem reports. How long does it take to conduct a post-mortem on an elephant and how long does it take to complete the report? The only way left now for the department to redeem some amount of their fast diminishing credibility would be to publish the detailed report of all the eighteen exhibits in the people’s court as soon as possible.