More than 350 elephants have mysteriously died in a “conservation disaster” in Botswana.
By the end of May 169 elephant deaths had been reported in the Okavango Delta, and by mid-June that number had more than doubled.
Some 70% of the deaths were clustered around waterholes, according to reports. Elephants of all ages and both sexes have died.
Locals witnessed some elephants walking around in circles before they died, an indication of neurological damage.
While the Botswana government has yet to test any samples from the areas, two main theories for the fatalities have been proposed: poisoning, or an unknown pathogen.
Anthrax was first considered a likely cause but has now been ruled out.
“This is a mass die-off on a level that hasn’t been seen in a very, very long time,” Dr Niall McCann, National Park Rescue’s director of conservation, told The Guardian.
“Outside of drought, I don’t know of a die-off that has been this significant,
He added it was “extraordinary” the government had not sent any samples to be lab-tested.
“If you look at the carcasses, some of them have fallen straight on their face, indicating they died very quickly,” Dr McCann said.
“Others are obviously dying more slowly, like the ones that are wandering around. So it’s very difficult to say what this toxin is.”
Elephants in the area that haven’t died have been reported looking weak and emaciated.
Zimbabwean poachers often use cyanide to poison elephants, but this possibility seems unlikely because scavenging animals such as hyenas haven’t died after eating the carcasses.
Coronavirus, which has been known to infect some animals, has been floated as a potential explanation for the strange behaviour and deaths, but it’s considered unlikely. There have been no reports of unusual elephant deaths in neighbouring countries.
The Okavango Delta has about 15,000 elephants, and ecotourism makes up between 10 and 12% of Botswana’s GDP making the endangered animals a vital part of the country’s economy.
“It’s a conservation disaster – it speaks of a country that is failing to protect its most valuable resource,” Dr McCann said.
Conservationists are urging local authorities to protect the bodies of the elephants so that poachers don’t take their tusks, which are needed for testing to determine exactly what happened to the animals.