Experts have warned about a mystery elephant killer which has left herds of elephants in Botswana “decimated”.

Speculation was initially aimed at poachers, but the tusks were not found to be missing from the carcasses and experts suggested that the sudden death was caused by either a disease or a virus. The rate and seemingly mass-graves of elephants is causing dramatic alarm for conservationists and hitting the Botswana economy.  

The Elephant deaths began in May 2020 and occurred in the Okavango Delta over the next two months. Botswana is currently a home to a third of African Elephants; with the current population of elephants in a worrying decline.

The “mass graves” of Elephants were first spotted when conservationists took a flight over the delta and then spotted 169 elephant carcasses over the next three hours. A month later the total deaths were at 350.

Despite the African Elephant population being in decline, the rate of deaths since May around this isolated region is totally unprecedented in a single event. The rate of Elephant deaths and the nature of deaths is mystifying the experts.

 Therein lies the mystery – What is killing these animals?

Although poaching is a big problem for the elephants; this has been ruled out due to the nature of the deaths and lack of ivory extraction. Other causes such as anthrax or cyanide poisoning has been deemed unlikely, while not totally ruled out.

With COVID-19 being a zoological virus; the elephant deaths may even be another public health crisis with intense testing underway across three countries to try to determine the cause of death.  

The strangest reports surrounding this story is the fact that the Botswana locals reported that the elephants were walking in circles before their deaths. This could lead to all kinds of superstitious speculation but the realist in me believes that this sounds like a neurological issue. The circling could indicate some form of brain damage before the elephants die. Many of the elephants are falling down flat on their faces and the suffering is not believed to be prolonged with death following instantly.

One hundred years ago the population of the African elephant was believed to be between 3 to 5 million. Presently the population is estimated at 415,000. Botswana homes 130,000 of the 415,000 African Elephants. These are figures that are descending alarmingly and the last thing that the elephant needs now is a catastrophic event like this to reduce the already falling figures. It could be a case that 100 years from now the number of wild African Elephants is comparative to the wild tiger population which currently stands at about less than 4,000. The fact that the threat is unknown is disconcerting.

However; this isn’t the only threat to elephants within the African republic. Despite the falling figures of elephants across the continent; the Botswana government still introduced measures to reduce the population of elephants domestically. This included reintroducing trophy hunting laws last year with a quota of killing almost 300 elephants made available (and put on hold after the COVID-19 pandemic hit).

Botswanan government clearly see the animal as some type of vermin, and there were reports of damage caused to Botswanan properties and damage to the agriculture that gave policymakers and the people a headache that led to the dramatic changes in law.

This leads me to believe that some form of malicious poisoning should not be ruled out as a potential cause. The New York Times reported that Cyanide poisoning would cause the deaths of nearby animals from scavenging which fortunately has not been the case here. There is no evidence to suggest that cyanide was used on the animals – but what about other forms of poison?  

It would be interesting to discuss if there were any other potentially harmful substances that could cause the mass deaths and if this is a case of animal genocide orchestrated by policymakers with a contempt for such a magnificent creature. Anthrax is a naturally occurring substance and a big killer of elephants across Africa.

Saying this, damage to the natural elephant population in Botswana could be damaging to the Botswanan economy with an estimated fall of 2% to the GDP speculated by The Guardian because of the elephant deaths. For the government to be behind the slayings is to cause economic self-harm to the nation. Tourism is a major contributor to Botswana’s economy; and they currently have one of the fastest growing economies in Africa – would they really want to slow that down?

There was an interestingly similar case of 60 Elephants dying in Kruger Park South African in the 1990s as a result of the rodent to elephant transmission of encephalomyocarditis. Potential droughts in the region are known to leave stressed out elephants more vulnerable to diseases and thus more susceptible to infection with stress causing higher mortality rates.

According to experts interviewed by National Geographic, a list of theories include; ingestion of toxic bacteria from drinking water, viral infection from rodents and the previously mentioned poisoning by humans. It could also be a result of the heavy rainfall suffered last year combined with the years of drought previously suffered – a combination of which is playing havoc on the elephant’s ecosystem.

Botswana is the final refuge for the African Elephant. The elephant population declined from the size of Los Angeles to the size of Tulsa within the space of 100 years. The Elephant is a creature of vast historical, mythological and ecological value. Revered and respected for their wisdom, intelligence and social culture, it is once again another devastating report of one of this planet’s most precious species diminishing. I hope that this is a mystery that can be solved, so that we may learn quickly how to eradicate whatever this silent killer is. But ultimately, I hope that awareness is raised regarding the mortality of the African Elephant and that we can take action now.