New spate of elephant deaths in Botswana’s Okavango Delta

Jan 25, 2021 | Commentary

By Dr Keith Lindsay

On 24 January, new reports have emerged that fresh or relatively fresh elephant carcasses had been found in the Mombo Camp area of Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta, Ngamiland, Botswana. The reports noted that at least five elephants were seen in accessible parts of the concession area of Wilderness Safaris, who own the camp.

The carcasses reportedly ranged in age from very recent to a few weeks old. The tusks were intact and at least some of the elephants, of different ages and sex, were found to have collapsed directly onto their sternums. These scenarios are identical to those of carcasses found during the spate of elephant deaths occurring in March to June 2020, when between 350 and 500+ elephants mysteriously died in an area to the north of Seronga village.

While the new carcasses appear to be the same as in 2020, there are significant differences. The earlier deaths occurred mainly in an area of dry mopane woodland, in some cases near localised waterholes during a period of drought conditions, but the current area is some 60+ km to south, in the heart of the watery Okavango Delta. The wet season is also well underway, with regular rainstorms generating lush vegetation in an already well-watered wetland region.

The explanation for the 2020 mortality episode proved elusive, as technical teams were not sent to the carcass sites until well after they had rotted and, given the time lapse, had become useless as a source of diagnostic tissue or blood samples. There was a shortfall in collaboration between Botswana’s government and wildlife researchers at the time when prompt action needed to be taken. Results from analyses of tissue and environmental samples that were collected from vegetation, soils and water remaining in pans, were described in government press conferences but no reports were ever made public. In the absence of reliable evidence, theories to explain the deaths abounded, with the two main contenders being a viral or bacterial infection targeting elephants and toxic cyanobacteria in the water-filled pans. Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, which are widespread globally, are found routinely in warm, standing water, and under favourable conditions, can grow into large concentrations. Some species can produce toxins and when these are abundant, they are known as a cyanobacteria harmful algal bloom (CHAB). The latter became the favoured explanation for the Botswana authorities and a vociferous element of the academic community, largely through repetition alone, since firm confirmation had never been achieved.  

While it is too early to speculate about the cause of the current deaths, and indeed the exact numbers of elephants affected is yet to be determined, it is logical to surmise that these deaths are not due to cyanobacteria. The new location is in a lush wetland far from warm standing pans that might harbor CHABs. In fact, it remains quite likely, given that it was never proven, that the cause of the very similar 2020 deaths were not due to CHABs in the first place.

Fortunately, these new deaths have been discovered, reported and acknowledged by the authorities at an early stage. Ngamiland Regional Wildlife coordinator, Dimakatso Ntshebe, has confirmed receipt of the report of the deaths on 24 January. He has said that the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) are in the process of dispatching their scientists to the area to investigate. As in 2020, researchers in the area could offer assistance if collaboration is established. In addition to carcass sampling, an aerial survey of the vicinity is needed to establish the full scale of the current mortality episode.

Hopefully, if appropriate samples can be collected, preserved and dispatched to analytical laboratories without delay, the cause of these very recent deaths may be determined with some accuracy. It is further hoped that the results could be made available in full transparency, so that there is greater public confidence in the explanation, and less scope for unfounded promotion of unsubstantiated theories this time around. More importantly, quick effective analyses should help define appropriate responses toward any further mysterious deaths of Botswana’s great herds of elephants.

Keith Lindsay is a conservation biologist and environmental consultant with over 40 years of experience in Africa and Asia

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