Experts remain dumbfounded regarding exactly what is happening in Botswana at present, but more than 350 elephant carcasses have been spotted in the Okavango Delta since the start of May.
In the past two months, Dr Niall McCann and his colleagues have been trying to figure out the cause, but lab results on samples taken from the bodies are still some weeks away from being obtained.
Reports from the Okavango Delta about the carcasses started in early May, and there were 169 found by the month’s end. That number has now more than doubled, with the majority of the carcasses found in the vicinity of watering holes.
Poaching has been ruled out, because the dead elephants’ tusks had not been removed.
Dr McCann, of the UK-based charity National Park Rescue, spoke with the BBC:
“It is only elephants that are dying and nothing else,” Dr McCann said. “If it was cyanide used by poachers, you would expect to see other deaths.”
Dr McCann has also tentatively ruled out natural anthrax poisoning, which killed at least 100 elephants in Bostwana last year.
But they have been unable to rule out either poisoning or disease. The way the animals appear to be dying – many dropping on their faces – and sightings of other elephants walking in circles points to something potentially attacking their neurological systems, Dr McCann said.
McCann added that whilst those that wander in circles are dying more slowly, those that drop on their faces appear to die very quickly.
Pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic, which more than likely started in animals before being transmitted to humans, Dr McCann called this both a “conservation disaster” and something with the potential to become a “public health crisis”.
Because of this, McCann says it beggars belief that the Botswanan government has not sent the samples to a reputable lab.
Many of the carcasses are first spotted from the air, and these combined images give you a sense of the scale of the problem:
Still, reports the Guardian, the full extent of the problem may be worse than the current numbers suggest:
Elephants of all ages and both sexes have been dying, local reports found. Several live elephants appeared weak and emaciated, suggesting more will die in the coming weeks. The true number of deaths is likely to be even higher because carcasses can be difficult to spot, say conservationists…
Local reports say there were fewer vultures on carcasses than expected, but none showed signs of abnormal behaviour.
“There is no precedent for this being a natural phenomenon but without proper testing, it will never be known,” said McCann.
Dr Cyril Taolo, acting director for Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks, says that the country’s COVID-19 restrictions have hindered the speed at which lab testing results can be confirmed, with some samples needing to be sent overseas.
Perhaps the financial implications will spur on some sort of action:
There are about 15,000 elephants in the delta, 10% of the country’s total. Eco-tourism contributes between 10-12% of Botswana’s GDP, second only to diamonds.
“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.”
Depressing to say the least.
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