Botswana, a country in Southern Africa, has the world’s largest elephant population estimated at 130,000. In a bizarre turn of events, however, more than 350 elephants were found dead under mysterious circumstances in Okavango Delta. This is according to an official who ruled out poaching as the animals’ tusks remained intact, according to The Guardian.
Mysterious mass die-off in Botswana
Scientists have described the situation as a “conservation disaster.” Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ acting director Dr. Cyril Taolo said that 356 dead elephants in the north of Okavango Delta had been reported and they have confirmed 280 so far. He added that they are still in the process of confirming the other animals. Samples have been sent for testing and they are expecting results in the next few weeks or so. It has not been easy to transport the samples due to Covid-19 restrictions. Taolo added that as the country is now starting to emerge from said restrictions, they can now send the samples to other laboratories in South Africa, Canada, and Zimbabwe. He declined to mention which particular laboratories the samples had been sent to but mentioned.
It was in early May when a group of elephants’ deaths in Okavango Delta was first reported. The tourism ministry said that the country is probing the mysterious deaths of the animals. In October 2019, Botswana also reported that more than a hundred elephants died. Back then, they suspected the cause to be an outbreak of anthrax infection, a serious infectious disease by a bacteria called Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax can be found naturally in soil and affects domestic and wild animals around the world. Some elephants were suspected to have died because of drought.
The recent discoveries have been flagged by wildlife conservation charity Elephants Without Borders. Local witnesses shared that some elephants were seen walking around in circles. UK-based charity National Park Rescue’s director Dr. Niall McCann said that if one would look at the carcasses, some of the animals fell straight on their face. This indicates that they died very quickly. Other elephants died more slowly, like those that wandered around. This makes it “very difficult” to pinpoint what the toxin is, McCann added.
More elephants may die in the coming weeks
Local reports also shared that elephants of both sexes and all ages have been dying in the country. Several elephants are alive but appeared emaciated and weak, suggesting that more of them will die in the next few weeks. The exact number of dead elephants may also be higher since carcasses are difficult to find, conservationists opined.
Cyanide poisoning as the possible culprit
A possible cause of the animals’ death is cyanide poisoning, which is often used by poachers in Zimbabwe. Cyanide is a rapidly acting and potentially deadly chemical. Poachers in Zimbabwe take advantage of the dry season to contaminate the remaining water sources in the area. They also sometimes inject cyanide into pumpkins and oranges which elephants like. In Botswana, however, they are not sure if it’s cyanide poisoning as scavenging animals do not appear to be dying at the carcasses. There are also fewer vultures on the carcasses. The cause of death will never be known without proper testing, McCann added.
Eco-tourism in Botswana
The estimated number of elephants in the delta is about 15,000, which is 10% of the total number of elephants in the country. Eco-tourism and conservation draw travelers, contributing between 10% to 12% of the country’s GDP. This is the reason why elephants are considered as assets of Botswana. McCann considers the animals as “diamonds wondering around Okavango delta," making it a conservation disaster because the country fails to protect its valuable resource.
Conservationists have advised the authorities to guard the dead bodies of the animals so that poachers will not take the tusks. World Elephant Day shares that an estimated 100 African elephants are killed every day by poachers seeking ivory, body parts, and meat. In the last decade, elephant numbers declined by 62% and they could be mostly extinct by the end of the decade, it added.
Elephant poaching in Africa
According to nonprofit organization Elephant Highway, which raises awareness and raises funds to stop the killing of African elephants, 90% of illegal killing of elephants in the continent is in Central Africa, 84% in East Africa, 59% in West Africa, and 51% in Southern Africa. The elephants were murdered due to the demand for their ivory. Meanwhile, National Geographic shares that 69% of likely buyers of ivory consider the white material from the tusks of the animals as a status symbol.
Demand for ivory is concentrated in China, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and the United States. Some 36% of people who want to buy ivory and can afford it are found in China, 34% in the Philippines, and 14% in Thailand. According to the National Geographic, a crucial component to limit the amount of ivory in circulation or to crack down on the ivory trade altogether is the demand side of the problem. “If there is someone willing to buy, there is always someone willing to sell,” it states.
In the neighboring country of Botswana, there have been no reports yet of elephants’ death. The delay in getting the samples to an accredited lab for testing to identify the problem is a real concern. Once the problem is identified, measures can be done to mitigate it, said London-based Environmental Investigation Agency’s executive director Mary Rice. She said that the lack of urgency about the situation is a real concern. It also does not reflect the proper action of a responsible custodian. Private stakeholders have offered help to facilitate urgent testing but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears and the shocking numbers of dead elephants in Botswana are “shocking.”
It seems that elephants are running out of time and space on our planet. Before we know it, they will be gone. But we can play a role in stopping the senseless consumer demand for ivory and poaching and allocate budget to protect the natural habitat where they and other wildlife can thrive. May we not become the generation that loses elephants.