‘It is a conservation disaster – but it also has the potential to be a public health crisis’
Northern Botswana is witnessing a “conservation disaster” as reports reveal that more than 350 elephants have died mysteriously in the past two months.
Aerial images showed carcasses strewn across the Okavango Delta and other northern parts of the country with over 70% of the deaths seen around waterholes.
“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 UK-based charity National Park Rescue told the Guardian.
Speculation from locals suggests the elephants have been infected or poisoned raising alarms of another potential pandemic. Scientists have urged the government to test the animals on priority to rule out any risk to human life in the wake of COVID-19, which is thought to have originated in animals before jumping to humans.
“If you look at the carcasses, some of them have fallen straight on their face, indicating they died very quickly,” explained Dr McCann to the news outlet.
“Others are obviously dying more slowly, like the ones that are wandering around. So it’s very difficult to say what this toxin is.”
“It is a conservation disaster – but it also has the potential to be a public health crisis,” he added.
Causes of death
Locals also reported that some of the elephants observed were found walking in circles indicating that the causative entity is attacking the animals’ neurological system.
While anthrax- a deadly infection caused by a bacterium is known to infect animals of this region, the disease has been ruled out. Cyanide poisoning, which is often used by poachers has also been dismissed since scavengers feasting on the carcass appear unaffected.
The government has drawn considerable flack over the lack of urgency in probing the deaths
“There is real concern regarding the delay in getting the samples to an accredited laboratory for testing in order to identify the problem – and then take measures to mitigate it,” said Mary Rice, executive director of London’s Environmental Investigation Agency.
“The lack of urgency is of real concern and does not reflect the actions of a responsible custodian. There have been repeated offers of help from private stakeholders to facilitate urgent testing which appear to have fallen on deaf ears … and the increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking.”
In response, the acting director for Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks, Dr Cyril Taolo told the Guardian: “We are aware of the elephants that are dying. Out of the 350 animals we have confirmed 280 of those animals. We are still in the process of confirming the rest.
“We have sent [samples] off for testing and we are expecting the results over the next couple of weeks or so.
“The Covid-19 restrictions have not helped in the transportation of samples in the region and around the world. We’re now beginning to emerge from that and that is why we are now in a position to send the samples to other laboratories.”
Botswana is home to more than 130,000 of Africa’s elephant population. Illegal poaching depleted the population by an alarming 30% between 2007 and 2014 reported Elephants Without Borders.
This led to then president Ian Khama issuing a ban on big-game hunting in Botswana in 2014. That ban was subsequently lifted in 2019, allowing sport hunters to hunt elephants.
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