356 elephants found dead in Botswana; Mystery as poachers ruled out

25th September 2020

25th September 2020

The corpses of 356 elephants were discovered in Botswana by in May and June. The mighty mammals were seen walking and running before they suddenly collapsed and died. And some seemed walking in circles or in a disoriented way before they died.

Botswana is a country in which the conservation of elephants has been a success story.

Although the sudden deaths of elephants have stopped, experts are still trying to solve the mystery to avoid future deaths.

Ivory poachers cannot be blamed for the incident as every single body had tusks intact and bullet holes were also not present.

As per the experts, two reasons could have been behind the mysterious deaths of elephants. One is the poisoning by local people and the other could be an unpredicted natural phenomenon. 

Officials of Botswana announced on Monday that Neurotoxins produced by cyanobacteria, a type of microscopic algae, caused the elephants to die after they drank from large puddles that formed after rains.

Some conservationists accepted this theory of the officials but some feared the reoccurrence of the incident.

A news conference was organised to announce the government's findings by Cyril Taolo, deputy director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Botswana.

Taolo said, “there’s absolutely no reason to believe that there was human involvement in these mortalities. This is not a phenomenon that was just seen now, it is something that happens quite a lot when there are these environmental changes.”

The government's principal veterinary officer, Mmadi Reuben, said, “there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered,” including why elephants were the only species that died and what caused the deadly outbreak.

That matter of concern for the conservationists was also that it was not disclosed by the government, which lab concluded the findings, how many samples were tested, and in the test results which cyanobacteria's species were found guilty. Officials also declined the interview requests.

A nonprofit conservation organization, LionAid, Director, Pieter Kat said, “there’s just so many questions that are outstanding.” Pieter has been part of a lot of wildlife disease research projects in Botswana. “They need to be completely transparent about the laboratories the samples were sent to and the lab reports.”

A few species of cyanobacteria can be found around the world in freshwater and they can contaminate water bodies and kill cattle, dogs, and other animals if they come in contact. Neurotoxin producing cyanobacteria cause red tides when they occur in marine environments.

A Kenya-based organization, research at Save the Elephants' head, Chris Thouless said, “one of the biggest unresolved issues is why there seems not to have been collateral mortality. That is one of the reasons we originally said this was not a probable explanation, because other animals didn’t seem to be dying.”

There are several possible explanations for why only elephants died, said South African University of Pretoria's veterinary wildlife specialist, Roy Bengis.

It could be that elephants are “exquisitely sensitive” to whichever particular neurotoxin killed them, whereas other species are more resistant, said Roy Bengis. “We know this happens — different species of animals have different tolerances.”

He added, elephants also drink copious amounts of water, up to 40 gallons a day, so they would be taking in a larger dose of toxin than a smaller animal. Additionally, unlike most other species, elephants “actually go and frolic in the water and roll in the mud and spray themselves,” The neurotoxin might have been absorbed through their skin.

Why vultures and other scavengers were not impacted is another unanswered question. A neurotoxin would most likely have been concentrated in the elephants’ relatively small and inaccessible brains and spinal cords, making it less likely to be consumed, added Dr. Bengis.


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