- The Botswana government is dragging its feet trying to uncover the cause of the sudden death of hundreds of elephants, environmentalists say.
- Nearly 400 elephants have died since the start of May. No one knows why.
- After weeks of government inaction, the tests have just been sent to laboratories, where it is not certain that the samples will be useful, according to the conservation charity National Park Rescue.
- Co-founder Mark Hiley told Business Insider that it was “one of the biggest disasters for elephants this century.”
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Botswana authorities are dragging their heels to investigate the sudden death of at least 350 elephants in the space of two months, environmentalists told Business Insider.
The mysterious dead, who saw some elephants fall on their faces and never get up, does not seem to be attributable to the poachers, according to the British conservation organization National Park Rescue.
There are several possible causes. But weeks of inaction from the Botswana administration mean that elephants continue to die with no answers available, said Mark Hiley, co-founder of National Park Rescue.
Ecotourism is second behind diamonds in the country’s GDP, Hiley wrote in email comments to Business Insider. “This is one of the biggest disasters that has affected elephants this century, and right in the middle of one of Africa’s main tourist destinations,” he added.
Environmentalists urged Botwsana to act and offered funds and other supports, said Hiley, to no avail. He said government officials hesitated for weeks before they even sent samples of the elephants to be tested.
The President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, was elected in late 2019 on a platform that included the decriminalization of trophy hunting, according to the New York Times, and said that he would prioritize the needs of the people of Botswana by report the concerns of other countries for its wildlife.
What has happened so far
- In early May, 12 elephants were found dead in a group covering two villages in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, according to Phys.org. The government has announced an investigation, the site reported.
- After the discovery of 44 other carcasses, the director of national park rescue, Dr. Niall McCann, inspected the area on a plane and saw 169 dead elephants in three hours.
- On May 27, officials went to the scene to collect samples for testing, according to Hiley. As Botswana did not have its own testing capacity, they had to be sent abroad.
- The government initially said it would send them to a laboratory in Pretoria, South Africa, but rather to a laboratory in northern Botswana, according to Hiley. Hiley described the lab as “unqualified” to handle them.
- On June 19, a Facebook post on “Botswana Safari News” published a statement by wildlife coordinator Dimakatso Ntshebe saying that international organizations should “not only criticize but help”. He said samples were taken from the vegetation and water consumed by the elephants, as well as from their carcasses.
- Samples have now reached Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, but will now be old and “of questionable origin,” said Hiley.
“The government would normally respond in a few days to an event of this magnitude,” he said, adding: “Inaction and the refusal to accept the expertise and the resources offered only kill more.” .
Hiley said that tests of this type require a documented “chain of custody” that guarantees the origin of the sample at each stage.
“We need an independent team of experts to enter, sample the blood, tissue, spleen, liver and stomach contents of several carcasses, as well as collect soil, water and other samples environmental, “he wrote.
An unprecedented animal disaster
“It is a mass death on a level that has not been seen in a very, very long time. Aside from the drought, I don’t know as many deaths, “said McCann of National Park Rescue. says The Guardian.
Botswana is home to around 130,000 elephants, the highest population in Africa, according to the BBC. However, the numbers are declining and animals are classified as vulnerable, according to the World Wildlife Fund. About 10,000 of them live in the grassy Okavango Delta, which floods seasonally.
In his election, President Masisi said he put the needs of the people of the country ahead of the value of animals in western countries, the New York Times reported. The country auctioned off its first elephant hunting licenses in February 2020, the BBC reported.
“Botswana was one of the last refuge for elephants, so it is a tragic turn of events for one of the most persecuted species on the planet,” said Hiley.
A potential risk to public health
The question of what kills so many elephants so quickly remains unresolved. As Business Insider has reported, cyanide poisoning by poachers is considered unlikely, as is anthrax, which killed 100 elephants in October 2019. And as there are no cases of COVID-19 for about 800 miles, that is also unlikely, said Hiley.
“Environmentalists in the field have reported horrific scenes of dying elephants moving in circles, and others dying on their stomachs, suggesting something that affects brain function,” said Hiley.
“The position of the bodies and the fact that some living elephants lose their motor functions seem to indicate that this toxin, whatever it is, affects their nervous system,” he added.
The possibility of an unknown pathogen causing death is as much a concern for humans as it is for elephants in the coronavirus era, he said.
Business Insider contacted the Botswana Ministry of Environment and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.