By Mbongeni Mguni, Mmegi
A high-powered delegation comprising seniors within the Wildlife Department and Botswana Defence Force (BDF) is reportedly touring the Seronga area, inspecting elephant death sites, as the mystery around the mortalities remains unsolved.
In a statement yesterday afternoon, the Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism Ministry said 275 carcasses had been found although there were up to 356 reported cases. Since the first official carcass was found near Seronga on May 11, the numbers of dead elephants in villages around the eastern Okavango panhandle have risen in leaps and bounds, from 56 at some point, to 170 a few weeks later to the latest numbers.
Authoritative sources told Mmegi yesterday that the high-powered delegation landed in Gunitshoga, about 20 kilometres from Seronga over the weekend and carried out interviews with villagers.
“The delegation interviewed villagers around the area to find out what they knew about the elephants deaths,” a source close to the latest developments told Mmegi.
“They then took a BDF helicopter to tour the sites where elephants were found.”
Seronga deputy headman, Twaemango Ndoze, was amongst those interviewed. “They were here interviewing us about what is going on with the elephants and what we know,” he told Mmegi by phone. “Elephants are dying around here and we are all waiting for the results of what is killing them.
“The villagers have heeded the advice not to eat the dead elephants. People in fact are afraid of even going near the carcasses.”
The BDF/DWNP delegation is said to have taken to the air on Monday having initially planned to start the airborne mission on Sunday.
Wildlife researchers in the area told Mmegi that the presence of the BDF in the elephants deaths probe suggested the DWNP possibly believes there is a human element involved in the elephant mortalities. “Or it could also be because they want the BDF to collect the tusks and keep poachers away,” one researcher said.
Meanwhile, information from researchers in the area suggests that the elephants could be suffering from an ailment such as encephalomycarditis virus or from a type of poisoning that disappears as gas and thus does not affect scavengers.
Live elephants seen by researchers on a recent tour were notably weak, lethargic, emaciated and appeared disoriented. Many had difficulty walking, partial paralysis or a limp. One was seen walking in circles. Vultures on the fresh carcasses were not seen displaying any concerning behaviour.
In Seronga, the deputy headman told Mmegi the elephant fatalities, while unusual, were part of a pattern of animal deaths in the area after good rain seasons.
“In previous times, when there have been good rains, we have seen fatalities of other animals such as impala as well,” he said. “We suspect the rains bring out certain plants or something of the same that these animals eat.”
Efforts to contact the DWNP acting director, Cyril Taolo and other ministry officials were fruitless yesterday.
The Ministry, in its statement yesterday, said it had identified laboratories in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Canada for the processing of the samples taken from dead and ill elephants. The ministry said poaching had been ruled out, but did not comment on the possibility of disease or poisoning.