Authorities Edge Closer To Solving Mystery Of Mass Elephant Deaths In Botswana

Botswana is home to more than 130,000 savanna elephants, around a third of Africa's remaining population. Neil Bradfield/Shutterstock

After months of investigations, authorities say they may have some insights into what caused the deaths of hundreds of elephants in Botswana. 

Cyril Taolo, head of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, told Reuters and AFP new agency that “natural toxins”, such as toxin-producing bacteria in the area's swamps, are most likely behind the spate of elephant deaths in the southern African country. 

Taolo stressed that these are only preliminary results and further tests are needed before they reach any solid conclusion. However, their initial investigations have reportedly ruled out two of the most suspected culprits: poaching and anthrax. It also appears unlikely to be an infectious pathogen that’s spread from elephant-to-elephant.

“We have received more test results from other countries including the United States, and so far the results show that it’s highly unlikely that the cause could be an infectious pathogen,” Taolo told Reuters.

“It’s a game of elimination where we start testing the most common causes and then move on to the less common ones. We then have to verify and corroborate these results from different laboratory tests,” he added.

“Our main attention... is now on investigating broader environmental factors such as naturally produced toxins from bacteria that are found in the environment, such as water bodies.”

At least 281 elephant carcasses have been found around the Okavango Delta over the past three months, according to the government’s official statistics, although some independent conservationists have said the real death toll is between 350 and 400.

Botswana is a stronghold for Africa's troubled elephant populations and is home to more than 130,000 savanna elephants and around a third of the continent's total remaining population. While the species is a major source of tourism and pride to the country, they frequently attract resentment due to increasing contact with humans, often resulting in the destruction of farmland and sometimes deaths. This is, in part, why some suspected poachers killed the elephants.

While poachers might not necessarily be to blame for this particular die-off, Botswana’s elephants have been subjected to a huge amount of pressure from poaching and hunting. 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. The country also controversially lifted its ban on hunting elephants in May 2019, in which they auctioned six licenses to hunt a total of 60 elephants, although it’s unclear if these hunts went ahead due to the disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic.

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