Botswana mysterious elephant deaths – the mystery continues…

In my July column I discussed the mysterious deaths of numbers of elephants in the Okavango Delta region of Botswana. The authorities in that country have been rather reticent about releasing any results of the tests conducted on tissue samples from the dead elephants by a number of laboratories in several different countries, which in itself seems rather strange. Meanwhile the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are having a devasting effect on people, wildlife and conservation in many parts of Africa.

On 10 July 2020, Reuters ran a story titled Botswana gets first test results on elephant deaths. It said Botswana had received test results from samples sent to Zimbabwe to determine the cause of death of hundreds of elephants but was ‘waiting for more results from South Africa next week before sharing findings with the public’.

“We have to wait for another set of results and reconcile the two to see if they are saying the same thing before we come to a definitive conclusion,” Oduetse Kaboto, a senior official in the environment and tourism ministry, said in a televised briefing. “We are hoping the second set of results will come in next week and that’s when we should be able to communicate to the public the cause of deaths.”

In the same story, it was reported that Chris Foggin, from Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, which conducted tests on elephant samples from Botswana, said only that country’s government could share the findings.

But Botswana has yet not made any official announcements regarding the test results, and on 3 August a report appeared in Science Alert, purporting that something was actually known about the cause if the elephants deaths. The article reported that preliminary tests conducted in various countries ‘have not been fully conclusive and more are being carried out’.

Botswana’s Wildlife and Parks Department boss Cyril Taolo apparently told AFP in a phone interview that “based on some of the preliminary results that we have received, we are looking at naturally-occurring toxins as the potential cause. To date we have not established the conclusion as to what is the cause of the mortality”. He explained that some bacteria can naturally produce poison, particularly in stagnant water.

However, in my July column I reported that the theory of toxins in water bodies was specifically excluded, because no other animal species in the affected areas had died near water bodies where dead elephants were found. Whatever was killing the elephants appeared to be strictly species-specific.

Botswana authorities have now reported that elephants are no longer dying in the affected parts of the country, and so the mystery continues…

Meanwhile it is no mystery that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact on African wildlife and biodiversity conservation, and that the rural people who live close to ecotourism and hunting areas are faced with dire circumstances as financial benefits from wildlife utilisation dry up.

Numerous families whose livelihoods depended on revenues from conservation and hunting activities are facing starvation, as international travel bans have killed the tourism revenue that used to flow into Africa.

Drastic times call for drastic measures, and one can but hope that African conservation agencies and managers will rise to the occasion, and ensure that sustainable subsistence hunting be allowed under strict management and reasonable quotas. Unless this is done in an orderly and sensible way, uncontrolled hunting and poaching can be expected to spread like wildlife across the continent.

Particularly in areas where local communities have worked with government conservation agencies to protect and nurture wildlife on their land or in adjacent protected areas, this is the time when they should be rewarded, not in cash this time, but in kind. The kind that you can eat and provide sustenance for your family.

Dr John Ledger is a past Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a consultant and academic on energy and the environment, and a columnist for the African Hunting Gazette. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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