New Delhi: More than 350 elephants have been found mysteriously dead in Botswana’s Okavango Panhandle after conservationists from Elephants Without Borders conducted flights over the region.
“Some of the animals appeared to have died suddenly, collapsing chest-first while walking or running. No tusks were removed, suggesting that poaching for ivory may not be to blame,” a New York Times report noted.
Most of the carcasses were found near water bodies or along trails and in a “sternal position on their chests, suggesting a fast and sudden death”, a Bloomberg report quoted Elephants Without Borders, a non-profit organisation, as having said in its report submitted to the Botswana government.
The cause of the mass die-off remains unknown, but it has been confirmed that it began as early as March. The fact that the elephants’ tusks were intact means poaching has been ruled out. Anthrax, a common cause of death due to bacteria that occur in the soil, has also been eliminated as a possible reason, and Covid-19 also remains an unlikely possibility, since nobody in the village has been infected, nor does any report suggest that elephants are susceptible to the virus.
While 356 is the official number of carcasses found, researchers suggest it is possibly higher given that their flights only covered a limited area.
Upon conducting flights, the researchers from Elephants Without Borders also found a number of disoriented live elephants, including one that was walking in circles. “Others were dragging their hind legs, as though paralyzed, and still others appeared lethargic and emaciated. Males and females, young and old, all seem equally affected,” the NYT report noted.
Chris Thouless, the head of research at Save the Elephants, a Kenya-based conservation organisation, said, “As elephant populations grow, it is more likely that you will get mass die-offs, probably on a bigger scale than this.”
Hunting ban was lifted in 2019
Home to roughly 1,35,000 elephants, Botswana has long been considered a safe space for them. But in 2019, President Mokgweetsi Masisi lifted the ban on hunting, emphasising that more needs to be done to ensure crop safety and prevent villagers from getting trampled.
Mark Hiley, the director of rescue operations at National Park Rescue, a nonprofit organisation based in Britain that combats poaching in Africa, underscored Botswana’s huge elephant crisis that is unfolding. He said, “The most important thing now is for an independent team to visit the area — sample multiple carcasses, the soil and waterways — and identify what is causing the deaths.”
Conservationists seem to be fighting on multiple fronts, with many claiming that the government is not doing enough. “This started months ago, and by now, the government should be able to tell everyone clearly what this is,” Hiley said. Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ principal veterinary officer maintained that the government is taking the deaths seriously and responded “swiftly, adequately and responsibly — as soon as we received this information.”