The Okavango Delta in Botswana is actually a paradise for elephants. But now pachyderms are dying in rows.
“First they run in circles and look disoriented – then they fall dead, mostly with their heads ahead” – this is how Vicky Boult, elephant researcher from the University of Reading in the UK describes it. Meanwhile, the number of elephants killed in this mysterious way near the town of Seronga in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana has risen to an estimated 356. The causes of death are puzzling experts worldwide.
Aerial photos, shot by airplanes and drones of the animal protection organization Elephants without Borders, show: Many of the animals lie with their trunks ahead in the dry sand of the Kalahari Desert or next to water sources in the delta.
“It’s strange,” says Boult. Because: “When elephants die, they usually lie on their side.” The fact that they fall on their knees head-first suggests that “most die suddenly”. This suggests that the cause is a neurological disease that first causes disorientation in the pachyderms and ultimately causes them to fall dead.
The first reports of the dead elephants were published in March. Back then, there were only a few dozen – no need to worry. But the first alarm bells rang in research circles, Boult confirms. In May, an aerial count with small Elephants without Borders aircraft already reported 169 carcasses. Another 187 were identified in June. Since then, experts around the world have been pondering the cause of death. “Even corona cannot be ruled out,” says Boult.
Botswana has so far been considered one of the safest areas for endangered animals. Above all, the mighty Okavango Delta in the north of the Kalahari Desert is a paradise for elephants. Here you will find fertile grasslands, plenty of drinking water – and: You are relatively safe from poachers who target the tusks and their valuable ivory, because the region is almost uninhabited and difficult to reach.
Worldwide, the elephant population has shrunk dramatically in the past decades, not only in Asia but also in Africa. In pre-colonial times, the continent was an unlimited habitat for an estimated over ten million of the charismatic animals. According to the latest counts, there are now only around 350,000 elephants left in Africa. A third of them live in Botswana.
Especially in the recent wedding of elephant poaching in Africa – 2008 to 2011 – a large part of the herds of West and East Africa migrated south: to the previously undeveloped lowlands of the Kalahari and the fertile Okavango Delta.
Botswana enacted a drastic anti-poaching law to protect them in 2014, and there was even an order to shoot poachers as a deterrent. In 2015 it was publicized in the media that Botswana gamekeepers had killed 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans whom they had encountered as poachers in the parks near the border. Tshekedi Khama, Botswana’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, reiterated his zero tolerance policy in 2018: “If you come to Botswana to poach, there is a chance that you won’t come back alive,” he warned.
In recent years, this has led to Botswana stocks recovering and more and more offspring being born. In addition, herds from other regions of Africa that are still affected by poaching became native to Botswana. The number of animals has doubled in the past 30 years. Then there was a dry season in southern Africa in 2018 and 2019, regions withered. This led to conflicts between the mostly rural population of Botswana and the steadily growing herds of elephants, which are eating away the farmers’ crops. For this reason, the government passed a law in May 2019 that allows elephants to be hunted again within the framework of prescribed quotas and licenses. The number of elephants is “far larger than Botswana’s fragile environment, which is already suffering from drought and the consequences of climate change”. Shortly afterwards, Botswana applied to the Washington Convention on Wildlife Conservation (CITES) to legally trade ivory again. Animal and environmentalists went on the barricades worldwide. The application was rejected.
Researcher Boult suspects that the mysterious mass extinction could have something to do with the overpopulation of elephants. As part of her doctoral thesis, she examined the relationship between the rapid increase in elephant populations and the ecosystem in narrow areas – especially in southern Africa and Kenya, where more and more wildlife enclosures are fenced in to protect against poachers and the elephants can no longer migrate.
“Elephants are destructive animals because they eat everything that comes in their way,” says Boult. In this way, they transform grass and bush landscapes into deserts in a short time, and contribute to the death of the trees. If the herds do not migrate and the environment cannot recover, they can permanently destroy ecosystems.
This could lead to bacteria, viruses or fungi multiplying and the animals becoming infected with diseases. “We suspect that they are exposed to an infectious disease that is spreading rapidly in this rather small area due to the large number of herds,” said Boult.
The zoologist emphasizes that even the first examinations of the carcasses by the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks preclude some speculations: So it can be said with certainty that the animals did not fall victim to poachers “because the tusks are all present”.
A possible poisoning from contaminated drinking water is also out of the question, “since no other animals who have drunk from the same water points are affected,” Boult knows. It commemorates the systematic killings in neighboring Zimbabwe, where poachers have repeatedly contaminated water points with cyanide in the past few years in order to get to the tusks. Whole herds suddenly died there too.
Boult also commemorates a mass extinction of up to 400 elephants shortly after the continuing drought in Kenya eleven years ago. “The dead were mostly older or very young animals, whose carcasses were really in poor condition – very emaciated.” But if you look at the current photos of the dead elephants in Botswana, then their bodies are actually in good condition, she says. “They are not emaciated and there are only single animals, not whole families, who die,” she says. This suggests that the disease that affects the elephants there is slowly spreading and that not all animals in a herd die at the same time.
A Covid-19 infection, as found in tigers at the New York Zoo in April, therefore ruled them out: “The coronavirus spreads very quickly and the animals show symptoms of respiratory diseases such as cough,” says Boult. This would not lead to a sudden death in elephants.
Nevertheless: elephants also suffer from zoonotic diseases, i.e. infections that can be transmitted to humans. They usually infect pets such as cows and goats with which they come into contact at the water points. In order to avoid this risk, Boult also wants to wait for the results of the laboratory tests on the dead elephants.
Botswana’s Ministry of Environment said the blood and tissue samples were sent to laboratories in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Canada. The ministry also made it clear that gamekeepers found only 275 carcasses on site – and not, as reported by the media and NGOs, 356 dead elephants. Even if the results of the studies are not yet available, one thing is certain for Boult, the elephant researcher: Dying in Botswana, like the corona crisis, underlines the urgency to “address the question of how we humans can coexist with wild animals”. She sees it as a “wake-up call” to everyone to start a discussion on how we can maintain and create healthy ecosystems.