Elephant deaths in Botswana

Mass elephant die-off in the Okavango Delta
14 July 2020

Interview with 

Niall McCann, National Park Rescue


African elephant throwing dust over itself


You might have seen some shocking images from the Okavango Delta in Botswana recently which have been published all over the world. They show hundreds of dead elephants with bloated bodies lying next to water holes. It’s been described as a “conservation disaster” but precisely why the elephants have died isn’t fully understood. Adam Murphy spoke to Niall McCann, the conservation director of National Park Rescue...

Niall - The great concern that I have is that we still do not know what this is. So we have no way of knowing whether it's going to spill over into the human population in the same way as COVID-19 did, or if it's a poison that could poison the waterways and again, have a negative impact on the human population, or if it's something that we can control within the elephant population. Because there's a very real risk, if this continues to run its course, that Botswana's entire elephant herd could be decimated.

Adam - Do we have any theories of what it might be? Or how are we going to find out?

Niall - There are three main possibilities of what it can be. The least likely is that this is a natural toxin, something like anthrax or a blue-green alga. And the reason I say that that's the least likely is because if it was any of those things, we'd be expecting to see many other species also succumbing as well. Second thing it could be, which is highly likely, is that this is a pathogen of some form, a disease, which is solely confined to the elephant population and is having a very rapid impact on them. And some of them are dying very quickly. It's obviously affecting their central nervous system, whatever this is. Animals that are alive are being seen with motor impairments, other animals that have died have died falling directly on their faces, as if they're succumbing incredibly quickly. And then the third, much more sinister possibility, is that this is a poison purposefully lain, either by poachers or by local farmers. There's very strong incentives for poachers to be killing large numbers of elephants, because elephants carry tusks of ivory. Ivory is still worth $700 a kilo on the black market, but then also farmers in that area have a very fractious relationship with elephants as, as farmers do anywhere that live next to elephants. Elephants are massively destructive and there's a possibility, that shouldn't be ruled out yet, that this was in some way a retributive act to try and protect the crop from elephant herds. But until we've got the results back, all of it's just speculation.

Adam - Is there anything else that can be done while we're waiting for the tests to keep maybe other elephants and the people near them safe?

Niall - What the Botswana government are doing is finding as many of the carcasses as they possibly can. Those that are close to human habitation are being destroyed. So they're being burned and buried so that there's no prospect of something in the blood or the tissue of the elephants getting into local livestock or into people. But if this is something that's in the water, then it's already potentially going to cause a knock on really negative impact on the human population. What the government are also doing is trying to defend that area from opportunistic criminals, because if you've got 400 elephants lying dead in the Okavango Delta, that's 800 tusks lying around. And now that they've been dead for a few weeks, you can walk up to those carcasses and just pull the tusks out their face. You don't need a chainsaw or an axe to get rid of them, to get them out at this stage. So the Botswana government are also protecting those carcasses. And I think that's really important and it's a big area. So I think it's very important that they protect them.

In terms of the public, what the public can do is just make sure that this stays in the public space. So retweets and share articles, read all the articles they possibly can and make sure it stays in the public space so that there's no hiding. We've got to make sure that this doesn't go away. This is a public interest story of international concern. The story has gone right around the globe in the last seven days. And I think it's really important that the government of Botswana realise that this matters to everyone. This goes way beyond the borders of Botswana. This matters to everyone that is resolved as quickly as possible.

Adam - And for the elephants, you said, this is about 400 ish that we know are gone now, on the scale of the remaining population,  how big is that loss to the species?

Niall - In terms of across the whole of Africa , we have already lost one thousandth of the remaining elephants in Africa, already in this single event. Botswana has in the region of 130 to 150,000 elephants give or take. And this region has about 15,000. So if this thing, whatever it is, continues to rip through that population in the Okavango Delta, and if it destroys that population, the Botswana herd, the largest herd left on the continent, could be decimated. And that's of significant international concern as well. This is concerning in so many ways, it's potentially a public health crisis. It's already a conservation crisis, but it's also an emotional crisis. Elephants are highly intelligent, highly sociable, very strong family bonds. Their brain is four times the size of ours. They cry salt tears. They mourn their dead. This must be having an absolutely massive effect on the psychology of the elephants that are surviving, watching so many of their friends and families dying. And I can only imagine that the trauma of this event is going to last for years. If not generations.


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