More than 350 elephants have died in northern Botswana in a mysterious mass die-off described by scientists as a “conservation disaster”.
Botswana in southern Africa has the world’s largest elephant population, estimated to be around 130,000.
The first unusual deaths were reported in May when 169 elephants died in a short period at the Okavango Delta, a marshy and lush wildlife habitat.
That number had almost doubled by mid June, with 70 per cent of the deaths occurring around waterholes, according to local sources.
The tusks on the carcasses were found intact, suggesting ivory poaching was not the cause of death.
Botswana’s government has not yet tested the animals’ bodies for traces of poison or pathogens, but anthrax initially considered the most likely cause has been ruled out. Anthrax is a naturally-occurring poison found in the soil in parts of Botswana and has been known to occasionally affect wildlife, but authorities say it isn’t the cause.
Director of conservation at UK-based National Park Rescue, Dr Niall McCann told The Guardian:
‘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.
‘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.
‘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’.
Locals in the area had reported seeing the elephants walking in circles, suggesting they have been neurologically impaired either by a pathogen or a poison. There are fears more elephants will die in the coming weeks, with locals reporting some looking week and emancipated.
The country’s Department of Wildlife issued a press release in May regarding the mysterious deaths and said:
“So far, veterinary officers have ruled out possibility of poaching because all carcasses of the elephants were found intact.
“In this regard, the public is cautioned against the consumption of meat of such dead animals as that may be detrimental to health.”
The public was also urged to report any other citing of dead elephants to the authorities.