Mystery surrounding hundreds of dead elephants in Botswana baffles scientists

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The mysterious death of more than 350 elephants in northern Botswana has baffled scientists and been described as a “conservation disaster,” UK-based newspaper The Guardian reported Wednesday.

Botswanan authorities have already been looking into the deaths since more than a dozen elephants died under mysterious conditions in April. Poaching has been ruled out because the animals’ valuable tusks have been left intact, UK-based science news site Phys Org reported at the time.

The Guardian reported local anonymous sources as stating that by the end of May 169 elephants had died, but by mid-June, this number had more than doubled, with around 70 percent of the deaths clustered around waterholes

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“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,” Dr Niall McCann, the director of conservation at the National Park Rescue, a UK-based charity, told the Guardian.

A pair of male elephants is seen in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (File photo: Reuters)
A pair of male elephants is seen in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. (File photo: Reuters)

A similar event occurred in October 2019, when Botswana reported that more than 100 elephants died due to a suspected anthrax outbreak, Phys Org reported.

In this case, however, anthrax has been ruled out, and Botswanan authorities have yet to test samples to determine if there is any risk to human health, the Guardian said.

There does not seem to be a pattern, with elephants of all ages and both genders dying, the Guardian reported local sources as saying, while witnesses have seen elephants walking in circles, suggesting there may be a neurological condition at play.

“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,” McCann said.

“It’s a conservation disaster – it speaks of a country that is failing to protect its most valuable resource,” he said, according to the Guardian.

Botswana is home to the world’s largest number of elephants, with more than 130,000, or around a third of Africa’s remaining population, a report published last year by National Geographic said.

Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana-based nonprofit, warned last year of rising poaching numbers in the country, with at least 385 elephants killed from 2017 to early October 2018.

Authorities continue to state that poaching is likely not the reason behind the mysterious deaths this year, however.

“So far, veterinary officers have ruled out the possibility of poaching because all carcasses of the elephants were found intact,” Oduetse Koboto, acting permanent secretary for the Botswanan tourism ministry said in a statement, Phys Org reported.

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