Hundreds of elephants have mysteriously dropped dead in Botswana in what is being described as a ‘conservation disaster’.
More than 350 elephants have died from unknown causes, with aerial photos showing their carcasses scattered across the Okavango Delta and other northern parts of the country.
The first unusual deaths were reported in May when 169 elephants died in a short period at the Okavango Delta, a marshy and lush wildlife habitat.
That number had almost doubled by mid June, with 70 per cent of the deaths occurring around waterholes, according to local sources.
Botswana’s government has not yet tested the animal’s bodies for traces of poison or pathogens, however Anthrax has been ruled out – Cyanide poisoning has previously been used by poachers in Zimbabwe.
Dr Niall McCann, director of conservation at National Park Rescue told The Guardian: ‘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.’
Scientists have urged the government to test the animals to ensure they do not pose a risk to human life, as human to animal pathogen transmission is at the forefront of the world’s mind.
Locals in the area had reported seeing the elephants walking in circles suggesting they have been neurologically impaired either by a pathogen or a poison.
Dr 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,’
In response to The Guardian Dr Cyril Taolo, acting director for Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks said: ‘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.’
He blamed covid-19 restrictions for the slow processing of the elephant’s tests and said the tests have been sent to another country for analysis.
The lack of vultures on the carcasses also caused locals to suggest something outside of a natural phenomenon was causing the deaths, with covid-19 also posed as a possibility.
Although Africa’s overall elephant population is declining due to poaching, Botswana’s numbers are growing.
The southern African country is home to a third of the continent’s elephants and has grown a population of 80,000 to 130,000 because of well-managed reserves.
There are about 15,000 elephants in the Okavango delta, and the pull of tourists to the country’s wildlife is thought to bring in around 12 per cent of its GDP.
However elephants are still under threat, farmers see them as a nuisance for destroying crops and poaching is still prevalent.
President Mokgweetsi Masisi last year lifted a five-year ban on big game hunting imposed by previous president Ian Khama.
But coronavirus travel restrictions meant that the hunting season did not take off this year.
Dr McCann said the recent deaths were a ‘conservation disaster’ as the country fails to protect one of its most valuable assets.