| The bodies of the elephants suspected to have been struck by lightning on Friday morning. Picture by Main Uddin Chisti
New Land Tea Estate (Alipurduar), May 4: Five elephants were found dead on the dried up riverbed of the Raidak II, a kilometre from here, early this morning.
Forest officials believe that the animals — two calves, a sub-adult female, one adult female and an adult male — were struck by lightning when heavy rain lashed the Kumargram area of Jalpaiguri district around 3 am today.
“We are almost certain that it was lightning but will be absolutely sure after a post-mortem is done and the viscera examined,” said L.G. Lepcha, the conservator of forests and field director of Buxa Tiger Reserve, under which this stretch falls.
Workers of New Land Tea Estate, bordering the reserve and 69 km from Alipurduar town, were the first to spot the bodies. Lepcha said the post-mortem would be conducted at the site and the carcasses burnt.
“There were flashes of lightning followed by peals of thunder around 3 am. Just before that, a herd of 11 elephants had entered our garden. We were on the alert and were watching their movement. Suddenly, the group split into two and while six animals re-entered the forest, the rest went towards the river. They were the ones we saw lying dead on the riverbed when we were on our way to the plantation. It was almost 5.30 am,” said Mridan Chhetri, who works at New Land Estate.
The principal chief conservator of forests (north Bengal), S.S. Bist, said he could not recall another freak accident in recent times that killed animals in this manner.
However, Animesh Bose of Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation said in the late eighties, five elephants were killed at one go.
“But it was not by lightning. A herd had emerged from the Baikunthapur forest division and entered a village near Gajoldoba. The villagers chased them by bursting crackers and the herd ran into the waters of the Teesta,” Bose said.
According to the environmentalist, the animals had been floundering in the fast-flowing waters of the river and some of them had even got stuck in the sluice gates of the Teesta barrage.
“Five elephants, including three calves, died by drowning. The sluice gates were opened and some managed to swim to safer waters downstream,” Bose said.
Forest minister Ananta Roy has ordered an inquiry into the incident. “It is unfortunate that we lost five healthy elephants. A committee will probe the deaths though we are almost certain about the cause,” the forest minister said.
More than 2,000 people had come to see the dead elephants. Residents of nearby villages put vermilion on the animals and lit incense sticks.
“Nature is so fickle. What was the use of killing so many animals at one go' It is not fair on them,” said Lakshmi Toppo, a worker of an adjoining tea garden.
Many like Toppo, for whom wild elephants usually mean trouble, were moved to tears. They had come from villages as far as Amrapurtapu and Jaipurtapu, almost 10 km from here and on the Bengal-Assam border, to see the bodies of the animals.