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It is a tragedy of elephantine proportions.
Indian forest officials have launched an investigation into the mysterious deaths of 18 wild Asian elephants Thursday, which locals suspect could have been caused by a massive lightning strike on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Heartbreaking viral Twitter photos and videos show the dead tuskers, which reportedly included several calves, strewn across the forest floor.
“Deeply pained by the death of 18 elephants last night due to massive thunderstorm under Kothiatoli Range in Nagaon,” said a Thursday tweet by Parimal Suklabaidya, the forest minister of Assam, where the tragedy occurred. He added that he would “be visiting the site tomorrow morning along with PCCF (wildlife) & senior officials to take stock of the situation.”
The state government ordered a high-level inquiry into the incident on Friday.
It remains unconfirmed exactly what killed the majestic creatures, but “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,” Suklabaidya told Rueters.
However, locals who found the elephants agreed that the animals could have been killed by a lightning strike late on Wednesday, a local forest ranger said, adding he had seen burnt trees in the area. The ranger declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Fourteen deceased pachyderms were discovered atop a hill while another four were scattered about the foothills, according to Assam’s principal chief forest and wildlife conservator Amit Sahay, who arrived at the devastating scene on Thursday, Newsweek reported.
Needless to say officials were crestfallen over the herd’s loss.
“It is a very saddening incident. This has never happened before in the Assam forest,” a bereaved Suklabaidya told Asian News International.
Assam’s former chief Sarbananda Sonowal tweeted that deaths were “an immense loss to Assam’s wildlife and biodiversity.”
Indeed, the region reportedly houses 6,000 Asian elephants, nearly one-fifth of India’s total pachyderm population, according to Al Jazeera.
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