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The mysterious mass deaths of 350 elephants has occurred in northern Botswana that scientist are calling a “conservation disaster,” according to The Guardian.
In May, it was reported that 169 elephants died over the course of that month in the Okavango Delta. Half way through the month of June, that number had more than doubled. The deaths seemed to occur close to waterholes, according to local sources.
“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,” said Dr Niall McCann, the director of conservation at National Rescue, a UK-based charity.
The elephants have not yet been tested for a cause of death and the Botswana government does not yet know if their death could post a risk to human health. Scientists believe it could either be poisoning or an unknown pathogen.
“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.” said McCann.
Some of the elephants were observed walking in circles by local witnesses which is an indication of neurological dysfunction.
“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,” said McCann.
The report revealed that elephants were dying of all ages and both genders alike. Some of the elephants that are still alive appear to be weak and bony, which suggests that they might die shortly as well. Conservationists say that sometimes the carcasses can be hard to spot and that the death toll may be even higher than what’s recorded now as more elephants may be discovered.
Poachers in Zimbabwe will often use cyanide poisoning which scientists think could possibly be the case however scavenger animals who are feeding off the elephant carcasses do not seem to be affected. Scientists did note that there are fewer vultures surrounding them than expected although their behaviour has been normal.
COVID-19 was suggested to be a possible cause however it’s considered highly unlikely.
“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.” said Dr. Cyril Taolo in an interview with The Guardian. Taolo is the acting director of Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks.
“We have sent [samples] off for testing and we are expecting the results over the next couple of weeks or so,” he said. “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.”
“There is no precedent for this being a natural phenomenon but without proper testing, it will never be known,” said McCann.
Botswana has about 15,000 elephants in its delta region which make up about 10 percent of the country total. Botswana’s GDP is 10-12 percent made up of eco-tourism and is second highest source of income next to the diamond industry.
“You see elephants as assets of the country. They are the diamonds wandering around the Okavango delta,” said McCann. “It’s a conservation disaster – it speaks of a country that is failing to protect its most valuable resource.”
The carcasses are currently being watched by conservationists as authorities fear that poachers will come and take their tusks.
Elephant deaths have also been recorded in neighbouring countries recently.
“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,” said Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency in London. “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.”