Science

Mystery toxin kills over 350 elephants in Botswana

Elephants in Botswana have been mysteriously dying as of late. Source: Bernad DUPONT (via Wikimedia Commons)

Rowenna Hoskin

Over 350 elephants in Northern Botswana have mysteriously died in a mass die-off described by scientists as a “completely unprecedented” conservation crisis.

At the beginning of May 2020, 169 elephant carcasses were spotted within the space of just one three-hour flight. These horrifying findings were said to be related to the government of Botswana; yet over a month later, there has been little to no response by the government. By mid-June, the death toll increased to 350 elephants. Conservationists warn that this number may in fact be higher, as the carcasses are often difficult to spot.

The government of Botswana has been accused of being delayed in its response to the crisis, waiting weeks to send samples to laboratories.

Initially, the government said that it would send these samples to a laboratory in Pretoria, South Africa, but instead sent them to a laboratory in Northern Botswana, according to Mark Hiley, National Park Rescue co-founder. Hiley described the lab as “unqualified” to handle the samples.

Samples have now reached Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, but by now they will be too old, and of “dubious origin” according to Hiley.

“The government would normally respond within days to an event of this scale,” he said, adding, “The inaction, and the refusal to accept the expertise and resources offered, if only causing more deaths.”

He added that testing of this kind needs a documented “chain of custody” which assures the sample’s origin at every stage.

“We need independent team of experts to go in, sample the blood, tissue, spleen, liver, and stomach contents of multiple carcasses, plus take soil and water and other environmental samples” concluded Hiley.

Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi’s election campaign included the decriminalisation of trophy hunting according to The New York Times. During the campaign, he said he would prioritise the needs of the human population over the concern of other countries for its wildlife.

While the source of these mass deaths is still undetermined, officials have ruled out poaching. If poachers were using Cyanide, there would be an expectation of other deaths.

No other animals have died, although, there are less carrion landing on the carcasses. The ivory has not been removed, and conservationists urge officials to guard the bodies so that poachers do not take advantage of these elephant deaths. With no identifiable source, it is possible that poachers could in fact transmit the elephant disease to humans while removing the ivory from carcasses.

The two main possibilities of the mass deaths are poisoning or an unknown pathogen. Officials have tentatively ruled out anthrax poisoning, which previously killed at least 100 elephants last year.

Local witnesses have said that they have observed elephants walking around in circles, which might suggest neurological impairment.

“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 is very difficult to say what the toxin is,” said Dr Niall McCann, the director of conservation at the UK-based charity National Park Rescue.

Without knowing the source of these deaths, scientists say that it is impossible to rule out the possibility of this potential disease crossing over into the human population. Considering the origins of Covid-19, this new mysterious toxin is very worrying and has the potential to cause a wide-spread public health crisis. If the toxin is in the soil or the water, it would be almost impossible to stop its spread.

It has been reported that 70% of the 350 elephant deaths occurred near or at a watering hole, according to local sources who wished to remain anonymous.

Currently, there have been no reports of elephant deaths in neighbouring countries.

There are around 15,000 elephants in the delta of Botswana, 10% of the country’s total. Eco-tourism makes up 10-12% of Botswana’s GDP, second only to diamonds.

“You see elephants as assets of the country. They are the diamonds wandering around the Okavango delta,” said McCann. “it’s a conservation disaster – it speaks of a country that is failing to protect its most valuable resource.”

“There is a 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 the Environmental Investigation Agency in London.

“The lack of urgency […] does not reflect the actions of a responsible custodian. There have been repeated offers of help from private stakeholders to facilitate testing which appears to have fallen on deaf ears… and the increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking.”

Dr. Cyril Taolo, acting director for Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks, 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,” he said. “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.”

With the results still weeks away, it is very possible that these elephant deaths will continue to increase. The delayed and half-hearted response from Botswana’s government has undeniably caused unnecessary elephant deaths.

Until the source is identified, more elephants will die and the possibility of its transferral to the human population remains a serious concern.

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