It’s a Terrible Year for Elephants As Well! 350 Mysteriously Drop Dead in Botswana


It’s a Terrible Year for Elephants As Well! 350 Mysteriously Drop Dead in Botswana

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Weeks ago, amid the coronavirus pandemic, we were greeted with the news of nature and wildlife reclaiming its space with humans forced to a lockdown. But perhaps, not all’s well in the animal kingdom. In South Africa’s Botswana, more than 350 elephant carcasses have been spotted since May.

Even after two months, the deaths of hundreds of pachyderms in the Okavango Delta region continue to be a mystery.

According to conservation biologist Dr Niall McCan, director of the UK-based charity National Park Rescue, local conservationists first spotted a cluster of elephant remains while flying over the region. Post their three-hour long flight, a striking 169 elephant corpses had been reported. By June, the number had more than doubled with the majority found dead around water sources.

To the world’s declining elephant population, Botswana is a blessing. A home to more than 135,000 jumbos, it is the world’s largest elephant conservation.

However, the unusual death of the giant species over the past weeks has become a cause for concern. In May, the Botswana government had ruled out the possibility of poaching as the cause of death, noting that the tusks had not been removed. Dr McCan pointed out that no other animals except for the elephants had been dying. “If it was cyanide used by poachers, you would expect to see other deaths,” he told the BBC.

Poachers in Zimbabwe are known to rely on cyanide poisoning to kill elephants. The scavenging animals, however, did not die after consuming these carcasses and have displayed no signs of abnormal behaviour.

Last year, a suspected anthrax poisoning killed over 100 elephants in Botswana while some are said to have succumbed to the drought. But both the government and Dr McCan have ruled out the case of an anthrax outbreak.

While many elephants seemed to have collapsed to their death, their bodies found face down, some locals are said to have witnessed the animals walking around in circles before breathing their last. Dr McCan has stated that whether it’s poisoning or an underlying disease, it seems to have impacted these animals neurologically.

Bittu Sahgal, editor of the wildlife and conservation magazine, Sanctuary Asia, has cited human interference with nature as a leading cause of these unfortunate events.

Actress and UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador Dia Mirza has expressed her distress at the escalating death toll.

Dhanraj Nathwani, Vice President of Gujarat Cricket Association, and a self-declared wildlife enthusiast calls the event “extremely tragic”.

Human rights activist Kifefe Kizza-Besigye has stressed on quarantining the parks “until [the] cause of this has been established.”

At the moment the samples of elephant carcasses have been sent to labs for testing but it might be weeks before we can draw any conclusions. With the corona outbreak that started from a mammal, Dr McCan argues that this could be another disaster in the making. “Yes, it is a conservation disaster – but it also has the potential to be a public health crisis,” he said.

With the recent findings of the new G4 EA H1N1 in China, said to have pandemic potential, the possibility of a whole another crisis has everyone on the edge. Oh 2020, can you give us a break?