Over 150 elephants have mysteriously died in Botswana over the past few months. Both poaching and poisoning have been ruled out, leaving wildlife officials scratching their hands over the course of the ongoing deaths.
Regional wildlife authorities have reported at least 154 elephants have died over the previous two months in the wildlife-rich swamps of Okavango Delta in Botswana, Reuters reports. The carcasses were found intact, suggesting they were not poached for their tusks or meat. There was also no evidence of poisoning, which can occur where there is human-animal conflict, or anthrax, a bacteria commonly found in soil that’s known to infect wildlife in the area.
“We are still experiencing elephants dying in the Okavango Panhandle. We also see elephants that show that they are sick and are on the verge of dying,” wildlife officer Dikamatso Ntshebe told reporters in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, in early June 2020.
The Department of Wildlife has begun removing tusks from the carcasses to discourage ivory poachers from approaching the bodies. Locals have also been warned against consuming meat from the dead animals, suggesting authorities are still investigating the possibility of disease or poisoning. It’s been reported that tissue samples from the deceased elephants have been sent to neighboring country South Africa for further analysis. However, it could be a while until results are received due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Botswana has the highest number of elephants in Africa, more than 130,000 savanna elephants — about a third of Africa's remaining population. However, the southern African country has a complex relationship with elephants. While the species is a major source of money, tourism, and pride, they frequently attract a fair amount of resentment too. Growing numbers of elephants in recent decades have seen increasing contact with humans, often resulting in the destruction of farmland and even deaths.
In response to the uptick in incidents of human-elephant conflict, Botswana lifted its ban on hunting elephants in May 2019. Although Botswana managed to sell 60 licenses to hunt elephants in early 2020, hunting season failed to take off in April due to the Covid-19 pandemic and global travel restrictions.
Wildlife in Botswana has come under increased pressure from ivory poaching in the past couple of years. Research published in 2019 used aerial surveys and field visits to show that the number of poached elephant carcasses in Botswana had increased by nearly 600 percent from 2014 to 2018. Most of these animals are believed to have been killed for their ivory.