More than 350 elephants have died in northern Botswana in a mysterious mass death described by scientists as a "conservation disaster."
A group of elephant deaths was first reported in the Okavango Delta in early May, with 169 individuals killed by the end of the month. As of mid-June, the number had more than doubled, with 70% of the deaths clustered around water wells, according to local sources who wish to remain anonymous.
“This is a massive death on a level that hasn't been seen in a long, long time. Outside of the drought, I don't know of a death that has been that significant, "said Dr Niall McCann, director of conservation for the UK-based charity National Park Rescue.
The Botswana government has yet to analyze samples, so there is no information on what is causing the deaths or if they could pose a risk to human health. The two main possibilities are poisoning or an unknown pathogen. Anthrax, initially considered the most likely cause, has been ruled out.
McCann said: “When we have a massive death of elephants near human habitats, at a time when wildlife diseases are at the forefront of everyone's mind, it seems extraordinary that the government has not sent the samples to a laboratory. of good reputation ”.
Local witnesses say that some elephants were seen walking in circles, which is an indication of neurological disability. “If you look at the corpses, some of them have fallen flat on their faces, indicating that they died very quickly. Others obviously die more slowly, such as those who wander. So it's very difficult to say what this toxin is, ”McCann said.
Elephants of all ages and of both sexes have been dying, according to local reports. Several living elephants appeared weak and emaciated, suggesting that more will die in the coming weeks. The actual death toll is likely even higher because dead bodies can be difficult to detect, conservationists say.
Cyanide poisoning, often used by poachers in Zimbabwe, remains a possibility, but scavengers do not appear to be dying on the carcasses. Local reports say there were fewer vultures on the carcasses than expected, but none showed signs of abnormal behavior. "There is no precedent for this to be a natural phenomenon, but without the proper testing, it will never be known," McCann said. Covid-19 has been mentioned as a possible cause, but it is considered unlikely.
There are about 15,000 elephants in the delta, 10% of the country's total. Ecotourism contributes 10-12% of Botswana's GDP, second only to diamonds. “You see elephants as assets of the country. They are the diamonds that roam the Okavango Delta, ”McCann said. "It is a conservation disaster: it speaks of a country that does not protect its most valuable resource."
The tusks of the deceased elephants have not been removed and conservationists have urged authorities to protect the carcasses so that poachers do not take them away.
There have been no reports of elephant deaths in neighboring countries
"There is a real concern regarding the delay in getting samples to an accredited laboratory for analysis to identify the problem, and then taking steps to mitigate it," said Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency of London.
“The lack of urgency is cause for 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 tests that seem to have fallen on deaf ears… and the growing number is, frankly, shocking. "
Dr Cyril Taolo, Acting Director of the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, said in a note with The Guardian: “We are aware of the elephants that are dying. Of the 350 animals we have confirmed 280 of those animals. We are still in the process of confirming the rest. "
"We send samples for testing and expect the results in the next two weeks," he added.
“The Covid-19 restrictions have not helped in the transport of samples in the region and around the world. Now we are starting to get out of that and that is why we are now in a position to send the samples to other laboratories ”. Taolo declined to say which labs they had been sent to.