By MBONGENI MGUNI & THALEFANG CHARLES – Mmegi Online
The mystery around the mortalities of elephants in the North West deepened this week, with reports that the death toll has reached 170 and authorities still have no clue of the cause as samples are stuck in a backlogged South African laboratory.
Exactly a month after the first official carcass was found near Seronga on May 11, the cause of the deaths continues a mystery, while more carcasses, of varying states of decay are reportedly being found.
Samples from the carcasses were sent to South Africa’s Onderstepoort Veterinary Laboratory nearly two weeks ago, but Mmegi is informed the results have not returned as they hit a backlog there.
“The lab was in a lockdown due to the Coronavirus and only recently restarted operations,” insiders close to the matter told Mmegi.
“The question is how government will get the lab to prioritise its tests over others.”
The matter has stirred concern from local wildlife NGOs, private vets and other experts who feel government has iced them out of the matter. Hostile animal rights lobbyists who regularly target Botswana over its elephant policies have restarted their campaigns online, saying the delayed results show that the government is “hiding something”.
The anti-hunting lobby that has regularly attacked Botswana, the government and personally targeted President Mokgweetsi Masisi is rumbling online again fortified by the delay in the results.
This week, reports also emerged that government’s bid to investigate the deaths had run out of funds at local level in Maun, potentially affecting the payments required to be made to the Pretoria lab.
Regional wildlife coordinator, Dimakatso Ntshebe was quoted by an online publication, Botswana Safari News, as saying while funds had run out, the Ministry would be replenishing the effort soon. Ntshebe was unavailable for comment by press time yesterday.
“The private sector is ready and willing to help with resources both financial and technical,” insiders following the matter told Mmegi.
“In fact, if local vets had been involved in the sending of samples, they would have used contacts and platforms at Onderstepoort not available to government and the results would have been out by now.
“From the beginning, government should have pooled experts from various sectors, the Department of Wildlife, elephant
and wildlife experts and others in an emergency team to look at this matter.
“It would have helped build advice and even properly fund the issue.”
Meanwhile, while the cause of the elephants’ deaths is not clearer. Reports from the area suggest a widespread and crippling agent at work. Elephants are being found having fallen face first, with their tusks in the ground, as though the cause of the death struck them mid-stride.
Other herds have been observed weak, emaciated and even limping, while the deaths are occurring in clusters.
“Those who observed some of the carcasses found scavengers feeding on the elephants without any effect. No other animals are being found dead except the elephants.
“The feeling is that the numbers are higher than 170 but more aerial surveys need to be done.
“The Department is running out of funds at a critical time because more work needs to be done in the field to properly gauge the extent of the problem.”
Most of the carcasses are being found in a belt of the Eastern Okavango Panhandle near villages such as Seronga, Betsha, Gunotsoga, Manga and others. From the GPS coordinates that were passed to Mmegi, 74 carcasses were found in a space of 20km along the busy elephant corridor between Gunotsoga and Eretsha.
The elephant corridor is used by elephants to move from their grazing area through the farms, across the road and through the villages to the river to drink water and return.
Authorities previously ruled out poisoning, arguing that this would have affected other species and the animals scavenging on the elephant carcasses. Anthrax has not been ruled out, but it is not in season, Mmegi is informed.
Experts believe that while the first official case was recorded on May 11, the deaths have been taking place for up to two months prior to that.
Repeated efforts to contact Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism officials were fruitless by yesterday afternoon.