Over 350 elephants have mysteriously dropped dead in northern Botswana in what has been described by scientists as a “conservation disaster”.
In early May, it was reported in the Okavango Delta that a cluster of elephants had been discovered dead. By the end of the month, this number had reached a whopping 169. Yet by mid-June, this number had almost doubled, with it being noted that around 70% of the deaths appearing to be taking place by waterholes.
Director of conservation at UK-based charity National Park Rescue, Dr Niall McCann, said: “This is a mass die-off on a level that hasn’t been seen in a very, very long time. Outside of drought, I don’t know of a die-off that has been this significant.”
As of yet, the Botswana government have not tested samples to see what is causing the large and troubling number of deaths in elephants – this could also provide information as to whether or not there is a risk to human health also.
The two main possibilities that have been speculated are poisoning or an unknown pathogen such as anthrax – this was initially considered the most plausible – which has been ruled out.
McCann said: “When we’ve got a mass die-off of elephants near human habitation at a time when wildlife disease is very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it seems extraordinary that the government has not sent the samples to a reputable lab.”
According to local witnesses, the elephants were spotted walking around in circles, this is typically an indication of neurological impairment.
McCann added: “If you look at the carcasses, some of them have fallen straight on their face, indicating they died very quickly. Others are obviously dying more slowly, like the ones that are wandering around. So it’s very difficult to say what this toxin is.”
Local reports have found that of the elephants dying, there appears to be no particular pattern as all ages and both sexes have been dying. Several of the live elephants seen appear weak and emaciated, which suggests there will be even more deaths in the coming weeks. Conservations have commented that the true number of deaths could be even higher, as a carcass can often be difficult to spot.
Poachers in Zimbabwe often use cyanide poisoning and this remains a possibility, yet animals that are scavenging don’t appear to be dying at the carcasses. However, it has noted that there are far fewer vultures on the elephant carcasses as would be expected, but no significant abnormal behaviour.
COVD-19 has been brought up in speculation but has been considered extremely unlikely.
McCann said: “There is no precedent for this being a natural phenomenon but without proper testing, it will never be known.”
In the delta, there are about 15,000 elephants and this is 10 per cent of the country’s overall total. This eco-tourism has contributed to between 10 and 12 per cent of Botswana’s GDP, which is second only to diamonds.
In neighbouring countries, there have been no reports of elephant deaths.
McCann explained: “You see elephants as assets of the country. They are the diamonds wandering around the Okavango delta. It’s a conservation disaster – it speaks of a country that is failing to protect its most valuable resource.”
So far, the tusks of the deceased elephants have not been removed and conservationists are urging authorities to guard the carcasses so that poachers do not get their hands on them.
The executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency in London, Mary Rice, has stated: “There is real concern regarding the delay in getting the samples to an accredited laboratory for testing in order to identify the problem – and then take measures to mitigate it.
“The lack of urgency is of real concern and does not reflect the actions of a responsible custodian. There have been repeated offers of help from private stakeholders to facilitate urgent testing which appear to have fallen on deaf ears … and the increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking.”
The acting director for Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks, Dr Cyril Taolo, informed The Guardian: “We are aware of the elephants that are dying. Out of the 350 animals, we have confirmed 280 of those animals. We are still in the process of confirming the rest. We have sent [samples] off for testing and we are expecting the results over the next couple of weeks or so.
“The COVID-19 restrictions have not helped in the transportation of samples in the region and around the world. We’re now beginning to emerge from that and that is why we are now in a position to send the samples to other laboratories.”
Taolo declined to comment on which laboratories the elephant carcasses were being sent to.
In other news, a marine plastic recovery vessel has just set the new record for the largest ocean clean-up in history, after a large haul of litter has been taken out of the Pacific Ocean.