Guwahati/ Nagaon: Eighteen elephants died in lightning strikes at a forest in Nagaon district of Assam, a senior Forest Department official said on Thursday.

The incident happened on Wednesday night at a hill in the Kundoli proposed reserve forest in the Kathiatoli range, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) Amit Sahay told PTI.

The preliminary investigation found that the jumbos were killed due to electrocution caused by lightning, but the exact reason will be known only after post-mortem, which will be done on Friday

"The area is very remote, near the Nagaon-Karbi Anglong border, and our team could reach there on Thursday afternoon. It was found that carcasses were lying in two groups. Fourteen were lying atop the hill and four were found at the bottom of the hill," he said.

The preliminary investigation found that the jumbos were killed due to electrocution caused by lightning, but the exact reason will be known only after post-mortem, which will be done on Friday, Sahay said.

"Two Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) and one Conservator of Forest have conducted the preliminary investigation. On Friday morning, another team with veterinary doctors will reach the spot and conduct the post-mortem," he added.

When asked how could such a huge number of elephants die together, Sahay said usually elephants stay in huddles in case of storms or rain.

"Probably, at that very moment, lightning struck and the entire group got killed. I have asked the concerned DFO to provide more information like how many males or females were there. It will take some more time," he said.

Nagaon DFO Binod Dulu Bora said the Forest Department with the help of the Veterinary Department will conduct the post-mortem.

"Now, forest officials have started their departmental investigation of the case at the spot," he added.

Villagers living near the hill claimed that the herd of the wild elephants was screaming unnaturally throughout the night and the cries faded gradually as the day broke.

Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma expressed concern over the incident and asked Environment and Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya to visit the spot to inquire into the matter.

Suklabaidya mourned the deaths and said he would visit the site with Sahay and other officials on Friday morning to take stock of the situation.

Elephant expert Bibhuti Lahkar termed the incident shocking and said such cases are very rare and unheard of in the Northeast.

"In open areas of some places like the African grassland such accidents have taken place, but rarely in India. If we consider Eastern India, then one such incident took place at Jaldapara in West Bengal around 12-15 years ago, but the number of deaths was not so high," he said.

Though officials are attributing the reasons to lightning from preliminary investigation, it is too early to arrive at a conclusion before the post-mortem as the number of elephants dying is "simply too high", said Lahkar, the head of elephant conservation at NGO Aaranyak.

"If they really died due to lightning, then these are signals of climate change. Our climate has become erratic, thunderstorm, rain -- everything has become erratic. If we really want to arrest this, we need to save our nature," said the winner of the 'Heritage Heroes Award 2016' of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

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