Over 350 elephants die mysteriously in Africa's Botswana, poisoning or an unknown pathogen could be culprits

Trafficking may not be behind the mass deaths because their tusks stayed intact, said an official


                            Over 350 elephants die mysteriously in Africa's Botswana, poisoning or an unknown pathogen could be culprits
(Getty Images)

With at least 350 elephants lost in the last two months, a "conservation disaster" has befallen Africa's Botswana. These mysterious mass deaths have left both wildlife officials and experts puzzled. The country is scrambling for answers after delaying its investigation due to the pandemic, according to reports.

“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,” Dr Niall McCann, the director of conservation at UK-based charity National Park Rescue, told The Guardian. Elephants -- both young and old -- have died while those that are alive appear weak. Experts expect more deaths in the coming days. 

Botswana is home to the world's largest elephant population. Every year, about 35,000 are slaughtered due to poaching, according to African Wildlife Population. But trafficking may not be behind the mass deaths because their tusks stayed intact, Oduetse Koboto, the tourism ministry's acting permanent secretary, said in a statement

The government is yet to test samples and figure out the cause of death. "When we’ve got a mass die-off of elephants near human habitation at a time when wildlife disease is very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it seems extraordinary that the government has not sent the samples to a reputable lab," said McCann. However, experts suspect that poisoning or an unknown pathogen could be the culprit.

In May, the country's tourism ministry reported 12 dead elephants in Okavango Delta, a region known for supporting some of the world’s most endangered species of large mammals, such as the cheetah, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, African wild dog and lion. The death toll has now crossed 300.

Botswana is home to the world's largest elephant population. (Getty Images)

The locals around the area caught some of these pachyderms wandering around in circles. This behavior suggests that something was affecting their brains.  For now, experts think cyanide poisoning could be a possibility. But that does not explain why elephants were the only victims, said McCain. What is more, vultures and other scavengers that feed on carcasses are not showing any abnormal behavior. If the animals are dying of infection, humans could also be at risk. "It is a conservation disaster - but it also has the potential to be a public health crisis," McCain told BBC News.

Without proper testing, the cause of death will stay a mystery. According to reports, conservationists have offered to help, but the Bostwana government has not responded yet.  “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,” Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency in London, told The Guardian. "The increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking," she added.

Dr Cyril Taolo, the acting director for Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks, blamed restrictions from the pandemic for the delay. "We have sent [samples] off for testing, and we are expecting the results over the next couple of weeks or so," he told BBC News.

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