Why are Botswana elephants dying in their hundreds?


Scores of elephants in Northern Botswana are dying. Conservationists and media houses report over 350 elephants have died. It happened at the Okavango Delta known for grassy plains and a rich wildlife ecosystem.

The first mysterious probe began in May with the death of 12 elephants. The number shot up to 169 by the end of the month.  Authorities have ruled any case of poaching as the animals priced tusks were present. In 2019, over 100 elephants died from an anthrax outbreak. Investigations linked the deaths to drought and anthrax. 

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Minister statement

The statement mentions 275 carcasses verified against the figures reported by international news media. Investigations are currently ongoing and three laboratories in South Africa, Canada, and Zimbabwe were shortlisted are to process the samples taken. 

Dr. Niall McCann, director at the Charity National Park Rescue (UK-based), termed it as a “mass die-off on a level that hasn’t been seen in a very, very long time.” The Government of Botswana is yet to test the samples hence no information on what is bringing the deaths. Surprisingly, Anthrax isn't the cause instead, poisoning or an unknown harmful pathogen seems most likely. 

Elephant deaths remain a mystery

The Okavango Delta is open for animals to roam freely, in proximity to human settlements at its edge. A pack of sick wild animals in close quarters to humans should elicit a stronger government response at a time when we are facing a global pandemic emanating from a wild animal. Some residents have seen elephants wander in circles - a sign of neurological impairment. Some of the carcasses show the animal had fallen on their face. Local reports show the deaths as random and spontaneous involving both sexes. An observation of the live elephants shows several as weak and emaciated indicating they might drop dead. Conservationists believe the number of deaths might rise as they discover new carcasses. Most of the dead animals were located close to water sources. 

Cyanide poisoning, a method used by Zimbabwean poachers was ruled out as this would’ve affected the animals scavenging on the infected carcasses.  Locals sight fewer vultures on the carcasses, but no sign of anomaly on the birds. Intrigue into the mystery has sparked rumors of COVID-19, but this is yet to be proven.

The delta is home to 15,000 elephants - 10% of the national count. Tourism is the country's second-largest earner after diamonds. It contributes to 10-12% of the country's GDP. Conservationists are urging the government to detach the tusks of the dead animals from their carcasses to prevent poachers from getting access. Neighboring countries are yet to report any unnatural elephant deaths. 

Dr. Cyril Taolo, the acting director for the department of wildlife and national parks told the Guardian that they were conducting tests. He attributed the COVID-19 pandemic to the slow pace in testing given the logistical challenges.

Botswana allows elephant hunting

Botswana has the highest number of elephants, over 135,000 according to the Africa Wildlife Conservation Foundation. The country lifted the 5-year gaming ban last year. Conservationists expressed their disapproval of the move given the surge in poaching in 2017 and 2018. 

The government decided to exploit the commercial allure of elephant game hunting, auctioning off seven licenses in February. The elephant hunting auction sold off 7 packages of 10 elephants in Gaborone and targeted companies registered in-country. Bidders began with a refundable deposit of $18,000. The government authorized the killing of 272 elephants in 2020. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) put elephants on the Red list indicating vulnerable animals.  According to the findings of the Great elephant census in 2016 revealed a drop of 30% of the total elephant population.