• Almost 400 elephants have dropped dead since early May. Nobody knows why .
  • After weeks of government inaction, tests have only just been sent to laboratories, where it is not certain the samples will be any use, according to conservation charity National Park Rescue.
  • Co-founder Mark Hiley told Business Insider that it is "one of the biggest disasters to impact elephants this century."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories .

Authorities in Botswana are dragging their heels in efforts to investigate the sudden death of at least 350 elephants in the space of two months, conservationists told Business Insider.

The mysterious deaths , which have seen some elephants fall on their faces and never get up again, do not seem to be attributable to poachers, according to UK-based conservation organization National Park Rescue.

There are several possible causes. But weeks of inaction from the Botswana administration means elephants are continuing to die with no answers available, said Mark Hiley, National Park Rescue's co-founder.

President of Botswana Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
President of Botswana Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs
Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

Ecotourism is second only to diamonds in the country's GDP, Hiley wrote in comments emailed to Business Insider. "It's one of the biggest disasters to impact elephants this century, and right in the middle of one of Africa's top tourism destinations," he added.

Conservationists have urged Botwsana to act, and offered funding and other support, Hiley said, to to no avail. He said officials government hesitated weeks before even sending samples from the elephants to be tested.

Botswana's president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, was elected in late 2019 on a platform that included the decriminalizing of trophy hunting, according to The New York Times , and said he will prioritize the needs of Botswana's people over concern from other countries for its wildlife.

What's happened so far

  • In early May, 12 elephants were found dead in a cluster spanning two villages in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, according to Phys.org . The government announced an investigation, the site reported.
  • Following the discovery of 44 more carcasses, National Park Rescue director Dr Niall McCann surveyed the area in an aircraft and saw 169 dead elephants within three hours.
  • On May 27, officials visited to take samples for testing, according to Hiley. As Botswana does not have its own testing capacity, they needed to be sent abroad.
  • Initially, the government said it would send them to a lab in Pretoria, South Africa, but instead sent them to a lab in northern Botswana, according to Hiley. Hiley described the lab as "unqualified" to handle them.
  • On June 19, a Facebook post on "Botswana Safari News" carried a statement from Wildlife Coordinator Dimakatso Ntshebe saying that international organizations should "not just criticize but help." He said that samples had been taken from vegetation and water consumed by the elephants, as well as from their carcasses.
  • Samples have now reached Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, but by now they will be old and "of dubious origin," Hiley said.
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"The government would normally respond within days to an event of this scale," he said, adding: "The inaction, and the refusal to accept the expertise and resources offered, is only causing more deaths."

Hiley said testing of this kind needs a documented "chain of custody" which assures the sample's origin at every stage.

"We need an independent team of experts to go in, sample the blood, tissue, spleen, liver, and stomach contents of multiple carcasses, plus take soil, water and other environmental samples," he wrote.

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An unprecedented wildlife disaster

"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," National Park Rescue's McCann told The Guardian .

Botswana is home to around 130,000 elephants, Africa's highest population the animals, according to the BBC . However, numbers are in decline and the animals are classed as vulnerable, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature . Around 10,000 of those live in the grassy Okavango Delta, which floods seasonally.

At his election, President Masisi said he was putting the needs of the country's population ahead of how western countries value the animals, The New York Times reported. The country auctioned off its first elephant hunting licenses in February 2020, the BBC reported .

"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," Hiley said.

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A potential risk to public health

The question of what is killing so many elephants so quickly is still unsolved. As Business Insider reported , cyanide poisoning by poachers is considered unlikely, as is anthrax, which killed 100 elephants in October 2019. And as there are no COVID-19 cases for around 800 miles, this is also unlikely, Hiley said.

"Conservationists on the ground have reported horrific scenes of dying elephants walking around in circles, and others dying flat on their faces, suggesting something impacting brain function," Hiley said.

"The position of the bodies and the fact that some living elephants were seen to be losing their motor functions seems to indicate that this toxin, whatever it is, is affecting their nervous system," he added.

The possibility that an unknown pathogen is causing the deaths is as much a worry for humans as it is for elephants in the coronavirus era, he said.

Business Insider has contacted Botswana's Ministry of Environment and Department of National Parks and Wildlife, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.

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