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Experts Aren’t Sure Why Botswana’s Elephants Are Dying by the Hundreds

After being slowed by the global pandemic, tests are now underway

An elephant in the southeast Okavango Delta, Botswana in 2019 (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

A massive die-off of elephants in Botswana's Okavango delta region is alarming conservationists, who are investigating the matter further after the COVID-19 pandemic delayed testing.

On May 25, conservationists took a flight over the grassy plains of the vast river delta in northern Botswana and came across an unnerving finding, reports Rachel Nuwer for the New York Times. That day the researchers recorded the carcasses of 169 elephants, male and female, young and old. By July, the confirmed deaths in the region had more than doubled to 356. But experts don’t know what’s causing them.

“Botswana has the world’s highest population of elephants with more than 156,000 counted in a 2013 arial survey in the country's north,” reports Sello Motseta for the Associated Press. The Okavango Delta, which has become a popular eco-tourism destination, is home to 15,000 elephants.

Some elephants seem to collapse and die suddenly, while others will wander around in circles—possibly a sign of neurological impairment due to a toxin in their environment. A total of 70 percent of the deaths have been near waterholes, reports Phoebe Weston for the Guardian.

As experts search for a cause, according to the Times, human poaching was ruled out, in part because no tusks had been removed from the dead elephants. That leaves two primary suspects: poisoning, or some kind of pathogen, reports the Guardian.

Mark Hiley, the director of rescue operations at National Park Rescue, says the possibility that the elephants could be suffering from COVID-19 is unlikely, according to the Times. The disease, so far, has not yet impacted the people living in the area and there remains little evidence that elephants can be sickened by it.

Some experts say that this massive “die-off” might just be part of the circle of life. “As elephant populations grow, it is more likely that you will get mass die-offs, probably on a bigger scale than this,” Chris Thouless, a researcher with Save the Elephants, a Kenya-based elephant conservation group, tells the Times. “Death is no fun, but it comes to all living things.”

However, other conservationists appear to disagree. “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,” Niall McCann, the director of conservation at the National Park Rescue, tells the Guardian.

Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks announced last week that it will investigate the mysterious deaths, according to the Associate Press. Cyril Taolo, the organization's acting director, tells the Guardian that until recently, the COVID-19 pandemic had restricted travel and made it difficult to send samples from the infected and dead elephants to labs around the world.

“We have sent [samples] off for testing and we are expecting the results over the next couple of weeks or so,” Taolo says.

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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