Over 350 elephants have died in a mysterious mass calamity in northern Botswana that has left experts and wildlife groups desperate to find answers. Discovered at the Okavango Delta, a marshland home to some of the world’s most endangered mammals, the die-off has been described as one of the biggest disasters to impact elephants this century.

So far, it is unclear whether or not the deaths were natural – caused by some kind of illness or unknown pathogen – or if elements such as poison could be involved. Anthrax has been ruled out, and it doesn’t appear that poaching was involved. The position of the bodies, some near watering holes, and the fact that living elephants were seen to be losing motor functions has led to the theory that a toxin could have impacted their nervous system. Wildlife groups have expressed deep concern regarding both the manner of the deaths as well as the fact that analysis of the situation has been slow.

"Some of the elephants [were] running around in circles, others dragging their back legs, suggesting the potential for toxins affecting brain function. Botswana was one of the last safe havens for elephants, so it's a tragic turn of events for one of the most persecuted species on the planet. We've killed around 95% of all elephants in the last 100 years, and we're still killing around 10% of the survivors every year. Unless law enforcement is dramatically improved across Africa, their 50 million years on earth could come to an end in the next ten,” Mark Hiley, Operation Director and Co-Founder of UK-based non-profit National Park Rescue told Lonely Planet.

Elephant in Botswana
Botswana's elephants are beloved by people all over the world © Barcroft Media / Getty Images

A statement was initially released by Botswana's Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism saying that three laboratories in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Canada have been identified to process the samples taken from the dead elephants. However on 12 July the ministry released an additional statement saying that due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, there have been delays. It clarified that the Zimbabwe lab has received the samples, which are being analyzed, while results from the others are expected in one week. 

The apparent delays have alarmed non-profit organizations, many of whom offered help to the Botswana government months ago. “The most important thing now is for an independent team to visit the area, sample multiple carcasses, the soil and the waterways, and identify what is causing the deaths. Elephants began dying in huge numbers in early May and the government would normally respond within days to an event of this scale. Yet here we are, months later, with no testing completed and with no more information than we had at the start,” Mark Hiley said.

“With northern Botswana home to Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area’s largest population of 126,000 elephants, the region's elephants are an incredibly important part of the continent’s conservation legacy. Reports of recent deaths of elephants in Botswana are alarming and we are awaiting test results from the Government of Botswana to help determine what could be the causes behind these deaths,” A representative of World Wildlife Fund Zambia (WWF) told Lonely Planet.

Mark Hiley also called attention to the fact that Botswana’s ecotourism is the one of the largest contributors to the country’s GDP, with elephants being a huge draw for tourism. “Elephants are among the country's most valuable assets, and they must be protected.”

More information on the work National Park Rescue does is available at the official website.

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