Mystery deaths of elephants in Botswana remains a mystery

Sep 23, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Keith Lindsay – Elephant Biologist, Fondation Franz Weber and Amboseli Trust for Elephants

The ‘mystery’ of Botswana’s mass elephant mortality has deepened rather than been dispelled

Stories of elephants dying in Botswana have raced through national and international media over the past few months, starting with a trickle in March and turning into a flood by June, much like the waters of the Okavango Delta. However, apart from the 356 (and now possibly close to 700) stricken elephants, the real victims have been openness and transparency.

Reports first began to emerge piecemeal from Botswana of elephants dying in a localised area just north of the Okavango Panhandle and northern arm of the Delta – a concession area called NG11. The official pronouncements from Government of Botswana (GoB) sources remained circumspect during May and June, when the situation was still depicted as nothing much out of the ordinary. It was only later in June, that the story of elephants dropping dead suddenly and in rapidly increasing numbers began to receive wider coverage.

This occurred only because reports, detailing the locations of 356 elephant carcasses and submitted by a research group Elephants Without Borders (EWB) to government in full confidence during earlier weeks, were eventually leaked to the public. A media frenzy ensued, with a wide range of international online websites reporting uncritically the official narrative that ‘confirmed’ only 280 carcasses and purported to ‘rule out’ intentional poisoning by poachers and one likely natural cause, anthrax. It was said that samples were eventually taken and sent to laboratories in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and other countries including USA and UK. No specific details were provided on the methodology of sample collection or chain of custody, the analyses to be performed, or the labs to which they were sent. Some commentators tried to suggest that the unusual outbreak was in fact nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing to worry about.

In subsequent weeks, there were occasional press briefings by GoB officials that announced results from tests, stating that various alternatives – pathogens, pesticide poisoning – were ruled out simply on the basis that the tests failed to find evidence. But as is widely appreciated, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.

In the meantime, different hypotheses were developed and publicised. The two leading contenders were both natural causes: cyanobacteria/ harmful algae blooms (CHABs) containing neurotoxins, and an elephant myocardial virus (EMCV) carried by rodents and transmitted via their faeces. In each of these, the proponents dismissed all other causes and promoted their own, and each of these used flawed interpretations of elephant behaviour to explain why they would apply only to elephants in the NG11 area. In reality, the elephants living in NG11 are no more likely to succumb to either of these diseases than other wildlife species in the area, or other areas of Botswana. The hypotheses remain only hypotheses, and both groups noted that the samples collected at such a late date from decomposed carcasses cannot provide evidence to help determine the answer.

Other possibilities, including that the elephants were intentionally poisoned by people, were dismissed out of hand. But it does remain possible that farmers, for example, could have placed fruit and vegetables containing a short-lived neurotoxin at the margins of their fields near the villages fringing the southern margins of NG11. Elephant families coming to raid crops, which were ripening at this time, would have encountered these poisoned baits and after consuming them, returned northwards to the vicinity of waterholes in the mopane woodlands. This hypothesis is at least as likely as the natural causes, and possibly more so, as it explains why only elephants were killed and only in this area.

Finally, on 21 September, another GoB press conference announced that the latest test result revealed that CHABs were present in water samples from NG11 and that the mystery was solved: natural neurotoxins killed the elephants. They now admitted to a ‘confirmed’ carcass total of 330. But even while this bold statement was made, other statements were more cautious, indicating that other causes were still possible. Indeed, information from credible sources indicated that tests for the presence of CHABs could not have identified the specific neurotoxins that would have killed animals. And an aerial count of the area, conducted by another NGO and released to GoB some weeks ago, suggests that the total number of elephants to have died is closer to 700.

Despite these cautionary notes, a new media frenzy occurred, with many platforms simply repeating the official GoB line, announcing that the mystery was solved. A small number of more reputable sources sounded a more cautionary note, that in fact we are no closer to understanding the cause of all this than we were in June.

The key points of the entire episode are:

– The GoB has tried throughout to keep a very tight rein on all reporting and information. They have not released any of the reports they have received, on elephant carcass numbers and locations or on tissue and environmental sample analyses. Because of this, it is impossible for anyone to judge objectively any of their pronouncements. Mistrust is the only likely outcome.

– There were apparently offers of assistance with the collection of samples from elephants, both dead and still living but suffering, at an early stage, but these offers were turned down by the GoB, who wished to “go it alone”. Eventually, they did allow NGO assistance but only with a selected few that had played a deferential game with them. Because of this delay, the eventual collection of samples was far too late to allow meaningful results to emerge from analyses. As we have seen, no tests were able to demonstrate with certainty.

– While the numbers of elephants that died turned out to be relatively small in relation to the total numbers in the country (some 130,000), the rapid onset of the mortality in such a localised area is a legitimate cause for concern. Things could have been much worse.

– If the cause of the deaths was indeed natural, it could happen again. If it was due to farmers unhappy with crop losses, there could and should be renewed and imaginative efforts to safeguard their interests and promote human-elephant coexistence.

– Because of the way this whole affair was handled, we have learned nothing and can draw no lessons for the future.

The Government of Botswana should be encouraged to learn from this episode. There is nothing to be gained from secrecy, and everything to be gained from openness. Their clouded approach has left them open to justified criticism, and their victimisation of researchers who discover and report to them on ‘inconvenient truths’ runs against the interests of conservation. There is still an opportunity to open up the reports to scrutiny and to extend the hand of cooperation and collaboration to all those who have the interests of Botswana’s natural heritage and rural populations at heart. Let us hope that this opportunity is not wasted.

Dr Keith Lindsay is a Canadian-British conservation biologist and environmental consultant based in Oxford, United Kingdom. He has over forty years professional experience specialising in elephant ecology, captive elephant welfare and in international conservation development throughout the world – including Botswana.

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