By Dr Pieter Kat – Director, LionAid
Back some time ago, there were reports that a number of elephant carcasses had been found, most in the smallish concession area NG11 in the Okavango region.
Then the number of carcasses began to escalate, and escalate, and go further through the roof. There are now reports of over 400 carcasses in the NG11 area and maybe some adjoining areas.
400 elephants dead would surely constitute a major crisis to be properly addressed in an open and transparent way by the government of Botswana. But so far, and months after the initial carcasses were discovered, there is still no answer as to why that many elephants are dead.
Surely discovering the cause of death is not beyond the wit of good scientists in Botswana, for example at the National Veterinary Laboratory. Also, that laboratory is connected with other similar research institutions regionally in SADC and internationally. The cause of death should have been a piece of cake to decipher, especially since fresh carcasses were available and samples were collected.
The Botswana government has ruled out anthrax (very simple) but nothing else. So was it an elephant disease that suddenly emerged in a small area of Botswana and killed many? The elephant equivalent of a Wuhan wet market and COVID-19?
Not possible. Most of the elephant carcasses are adults and some subadults as seen from the images – a disease would affect all age classes. Also, many of the photographs show that the dead elephants collapsed almost in mid-step, falling forward and then – dead.
Ivory poaching has also been ruled out as the great majority of the carcasses have been found with tusks intact.
It is almost like what you expect to see from a chemical nerve agent – a poison. But unlike in Zimbabwe, where waterholes were intentionally poisoned with cyanide, there seems to be little involvement of other wildlife species. And unlike poisons used in other cases, there seems to have been little collateral damage to scavengers eating the poisoned carcasses – like hyenas, lions, jackals, vultures.
So what is killing the elephants? Botswana needs to find out. Allow samples from the freshest carcasses to be taken and send them to competent testing laboratories. The Botswana wildlife department has claimed that sending such samples was difficult under COVID lockdowns, or that the samples have not been processed because of backlogs. Other reports are emerging that samples have never been sent.
400 elephants dead cannot be buried behind excuses and a lack of transparency. Botswana is a major destination for wildlife tourists, and this cannot be shuffled conveniently under a carpet woven of complacency and excuses.
Get testing Botswana, get the truth out no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable if the elephants were indeed killed by a man-made cause. Costs of testing by international laboratories should not be a barrier – after all, Botswana is now engaging in a costly rhino de-horning program after massive poaching.
Botswana might these days not like the fact that they are the nation with the most elephants on the continent. Elephants cause crop damage and endanger human life. But Botswana gains more employment income from wildlife than subsistence agriculture, Botswana’s economy is ever more dependent on tourism.
If elephant numbers are really a problem to Botswana, there are many willing to step in with finance, plans, solutions to open the pressure valve.