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At least 18 elephants have been found dead in the northeast Indian state of Assam after officials suspect a lightning bolt struck their forest reserve.
The carcasses were found by locals in the Kandali Proposed Reserve Forest on Thursday. While officials say lightning is most likely the cause of the deaths, other reasons have not been ruled out.
"We suspect that it is a lighting strike that killed them as a result of the storm," MK Yadava, chief wildlife warden in Assam, told The Indian Express.
A probe has been launched into the deaths and the carcasses have been sent for post-mortem. A team of vets and forest officials has been sent to the area for further investigation.
Principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife) Amit Sahay told NDTV that the area is very remote and when the team reached there on Thursday, they 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.
A leading conservationist has questioned the claims that the elephants were killed by lightning.
Soumyadeep Datta from environmental activist group Nature's Beckon told AFP that poisoning could be behind the death of the animals. "We have to wait for the autopsy report, which the forest department will do soon."
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has expressed concern about the deaths. The state's forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya said in a tweet that he was "deeply pained" by the deaths of the 18 elephants "due to massive thunderstorm."
This is the first time in 20 years that so many elephants have been found dead at the same time in Assam, according to BBC.