Elephant deaths may be due to ‘novel disease,’ Botswana says

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New pathogen may may be responsible for hundreds of elephant deaths in Botswana, government warns as six more dead animals are found

  • At least 281 elephant carcasses have been found in the Southern African nation
  • Officials have ruled out poaching and anthrax but the cause is not yet known
  • Botswana’s government states initial test results have ruled out known diseases

Botswana’s mystery spate of elephant deaths could be caused by a ‘novel disease’, the government fears. Six new elephant carcasses have been discovered in the country, taking the total since May to 281 in a crisis which has left officials and veterinarians baffled. Authorities say that poaching is not the cause, and the government now says that initial test results have ruled out a number of known diseases – suggesting that a new pathogen could be to blame. 

The deaths are concentrated in an area of 3,000 square miles in the Okavango Delta that is home to about 18,000 elephants and neighbouring countries have not reported any similar problems.

Officials and conservationists ruled out poaching at an early stage because the carcasses have been found intact, with their tusks on. Poachers sometimes use poisons like cyanide to kill elephants, but scavenging animals do not appear to be dying near the carcasses. Government veterinary scientists have also ruled out anthrax after taking samples from the dead animals in the Okavango Panhandle. 

As many as 70% of the dead elephants have been found clustered near watering holes, but other animals do not seem to be dying in large numbers. Cyril Taolo, Acting Director of Botswana’s Wildlife Department said the government had contacted neighbours Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Zambia but they had not seen similar elephant deaths. Africa’s overall elephant population is declining due to poaching, but Botswana, home to almost a third of the continent’s elephants, has seen numbers grow from 80,000 in the late 1990s to 130,000 now. 

“We are not dealing with a common thing, it looks like it’s a rare cause,” said Mmadi Reuben, Principal Veterinary Officer in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. 

“We cannot rule out anything at this stage, it could be a virus, vegetation, over-nutrition after last year’s drought … We have asked the community not to interact with the carcasses.”

Botswana said yesterday it had received its first test results from samples sent to Zimbabwe, but are holding them back until they can be compared to other tests. 

“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,” an official said. 

Reuben said officials were expecting to receive test results this week on samples sent to South Africa and Canada. The death rate in the affected area is below 2%, but the carcasses have attracted vultures leaving droppings and eating their flesh. Hundreds of live elephants are still wandering near the carcasses, which have been marked in red paint by officials. Some campaign groups have criticised the government for acting too slowly to solve the mystery of the dying elephants, an accusation which Reuben denied.

Although the number is still only a small fraction of the 130,000 elephants in Botswana, there are fears more could die if authorities cannot establish the cause. Wave Kashweka, a Senior Veterinary Officer in Botswana’s North-West district, said officials had found elephants which appeared to have died recently. Aerial surveys would be used to try and find more carcasses if they exist, he said. 

In other news, the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) this week said it had killed one poacher and an illegal immigrant in two separate incidents. It said in a press release that both incidents took place within a week of each other during anti-poaching and border patrol operations.

The first incident occurred at 0930hrs on the 5th July 2020, 7 km from Xhoromo around the Kwando II area in the Okavango Delta, the release said. The BDF anti-poaching team exchanged fire with poachers resulting in one poacher being killed, bringing the total number of poachers killed this year to 17, it said.

The second unrelated incident occurred on the 10th July 2020 at 0800hrs around the Shalimpo area in the Eastern part of the country, where a BDF foot patrol team tried to stop three men who had entered Botswana through an ungazetted point. When the patrol team sounded out a warning for them to stop, the three men fled, at which point the BDF team fired rubber bullets, according to the release. One of the men was shot and all three were apprehended. The injured man was rushed to a Medical Facility where he later passed on. At the time of going to press, the BDF had not determined the nationalities of the trio and police investigations are ongoing.

References: BOPA, BTV, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8510601/New-pathogen-responsible-hundreds-elephant-deaths-Botswana.html

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