Authorities are trying to establish how 18 wild Asian elephants died in a remote corner of northeast India.
The elephants, including five calves, were found dead in the Kondali Forest Reserve in Assam state, Jayanta Goswami, a wildlife official, told The Associated Press. The ranger reached the area on Thursday and found 14 elephants dead on top of a hill and four at the bottom.
Forestry officials and local lawmaker Jitu Goswami told Agence France-Presse they believed the elephants were dead after lightning struck the forest. But Soumyadeep Datta, a prominent conservationist for the environmental activist group Nature’s Beckon, said it was unlikely, based on images shared on social media.
“Poisoning could be the cause of elephant deaths,” Datta said. “We have to wait for the autopsy report, which the forestry department will do soon.”
On Friday, a team of veterans and officials visited the site with Assam’s Forestry and Environment Minister Parimal Shuklabaidya. The reserve is located in the Nagaon district, 95 miles east of Gauhati, the state capital.
India is home to nearly 30,000 elephants, or about 60% of the wild Asian elephant population. About 6,000 or more wild Asian elephants live in Assam. They often come out of forests in search of food.
Environmentalists have urged the government to prevent encroachment by populations into elephant territory and establish free corridors for elephants to move between forests safely. In recent years, wild elephants have entered villages, destroyed crops and even killed people.