Unexplained mass death of elephants in Botswana

The unique Okavango Delta in northern Botswana has reported over 350 elephant mortalities in what is an unprecedented and unexplained mass death event. The region is one of the last in Africa with a healthy elephant population and although group deaths of the species are not uncommon, the scale of the event has shocked conservationists and academics alike. 

Anthrax, a poison naturally found in the region which has caused wildlife deaths in the past has been ruled out as a possibility, with government scientists currently undertaking further tests, a process hampered by significant delays related to the Coronavirus pandemic in the region. 

Botswana is home to a third of Africa’s elephant population and the largest of any single country. The significant number of elephants in the country has brought numerous human-wildlife conflicts in the recent past as the human population grows, with local authorities relaxing conservation measures on the elephants. 

Elephant populations in the area have been declining in recent years as a result of droughts and poaching, but no single event in the past has been as deadly as the one currently witnessed. Experts suspect the animals’ neurological system is being attacked based on the unusual exhibited behavior of walking in circles before dropping to their faces and chests. It has also been noted that only elephants and no other animal have been affected.

Last year, Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism reversed a 5-year elephant killing ban due to the increasing human-elephant conflict in Botswana. The government officials cite the inability to respond to animal control reports in a timely manner and the destruction the 12-ton animals cause while roaming in the communities as the reason for lifting the ban. The ministry states that culling will be conducted “in an orderly and ethical manner”.

Poaching continues to be the current greatest threat to elephants, with as many as 35,000 killed each year for the ongoing high international demand for ivory. Conservationists have vamped up projects to help the declining elephant population with varying degrees of success.

One such program, the Okavango Wilderness Project run by the African Conservation Experience, monitors and records wildlife over the Okavango region where trophy hunting was most persistent. Their widespread presence in the area and reporting to the Department of Wildlife and National Park officials have significantly reduced rates of poaching.

For The Yucatan TimesWildlife
Daniel Oropeza

Daniel Oropeza is an environmental journalist who graduated from the University of California. His work focuses on climate change and human impacts across landscapes and ecosystems.