Following Earth.Org’s June 18th coverage of the mysterious illness that had killed a cluster of elephants in the Okavango Delta region in northern Botswana, it has now emerged that more than 350 elephants have died, in a mass die-off event that scientists are describing as a ‘conservation disaster’. 

70% of those elephants that have died in the region in Botswana are clustered around waterholes. The government has yet to test samples so there is no information about what could be causing the deaths or whether there is a threat to humans. Anthrax has been ruled out, so the two main possibilities are poisoning or an unknown pathogen. Cyanide poisoning is another possibility, however local reports say that scavenging animals do not seem to be dying after consuming the carcasses, nor are they showing abnormal behaviour. 

The slow response by the government has been met with incredulity by scientists and conservationists, with Dr Niall McCann, the director of conservation at National Park Rescue, saying, “When we’ve got a mass die-off of elephants near human habitation at a time when wildlife disease is very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it seems extraordinary that the government has not sent the samples to a reputable lab.”

Witnesses say that some elephants were seen walking in circles, an indication of neurological impairment, while some have fallen straight on their face, a sign of quick deaths. 

Several live elephants have appeared to be weak and emaciated, suggesting that more will die in the coming weeks. However, the number of deaths is likely to be even higher since carcasses can be difficult to spot. There have been no reports of elephant deaths in neighbouring countries. 

The tusks of deceased elephants have not been removed and authorities have been urged to guard the carcasses so that poachers do not take them. 

Dr Cyril Taolo, acting director for Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks, said, “We are aware of the elephants that are dying. Out of the 350 animals we have confirmed 280 of those animals. We are still in the process of confirming the rest.

“We have sent [samples] off for testing and we are expecting the results over the next couple of weeks or so. The COVID-19 restrictions have not helped in the transportation of samples in the region and around the world. We’re now beginning to emerge from that and that is why we are now in a position to send the samples to other laboratories,” he added. 

There are about 130 000 elephants in the country, 15 000 of which are in the Okavango Delta region.