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Earth.Org reported on July 2 that at least 350 elephant deaths in the Okavango Delta in Botswana had occurred mysteriously. It has now emerged that the elephants died from ingesting toxins produced by cyanobacteria, according to government officials. 

The deaths of the elephants between May and June baffled conservationists who called the mass die-off a “conservation disaster.” It was initially suggested that they died from a rodent virus called encephalomyocarditis, or toxins from algal blooms. Government have now said that they will be testing waterholes for algal blooms in the next rainy season to reduce the risk of another mass die-off. 

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Mmadi Reuben, principal veterinary officer at the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, said in a news conference, “Our latest tests have detected cyanobacterial neurotoxins to be the cause of deaths. These are bacteria found in water. However, we have many questions that still need to be answered such as why the elephants only and why that area only. We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating.” Reuben said that water samples were tested at laboratories in Botswana, South Africa and the US, but declined to give further details. 

Earth.Org previously reported that 70% of the elephant deaths in Botswana happened near water holes containing algal blooms, which can produce toxic microscopic organisms called cyanobacteria. Toxins were initially ruled out because no other species died- except for one horse- but elephants could be particularly susceptible because of the time they spend bathing and drinking large quantities of water. 

However, Dr Niall McCann, director of conservation at UK-based charity National Park Rescue, is skeptical. “Just because cyanobacteria were found in the water, that does not prove that the elephants died from exposure to these toxins,” he says.

The climate crisis is increasing the intensity and frequency of harmful algal blooms, making the issue more likely to happen again. In the Antarctic region, algal blooms have been turning snow green, which will exacerbate snow melt. McCann says, “New emerging infectious diseases are happening all the time and the more we look into epidemiology the more we discover we don’t know.”

African elephants have been facing serious threats, such as climate change-related droughts, conflicts with farmers whose land the elephants trample and poachers who illegally hunt and kill the elephants for their valuable ivory tusks. Across Africa, poaching has had a devastating impact on the continent’s elephant population over the decades. Africa was home to 1.3 million elephants in the 1970s, but today there are just around 500 000. Less than 30 000 elephants are estimated to remain in the wild.Thankfully, there is some good news for African elephants in Kenya, whose population has more than doubled in 30 years. 

Following the tragic news about hundreds of sudden elephant deaths in Botswana due to a mysterious illness, this marks a glimmer of hope for the species. 

On August 12, to mark World Elephant Day, the Kenya Wildlife Service reported that the country’s elephant population has more than doubled in 30 years, increasing from 16 000 in 1989 to 34 800 by the end of 2019. Additionally, one of the most popular parks in Kenya, the Amboseli National Park, is experiencing an elephant baby boom. About 170 elephant calves have been born in 2020 so far and more are expected. Additionally, two sets of twins were born this year in the national park, a rare occurrence among the species. In contrast, there were 113 new calves born in the whole of 2018, according to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

The combination of interruptions in international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic and periods of heavy rainfall has contributed to Kenya’s recent elephant baby boom. During drought years, female elephants often cannot find sufficient food to supply their calves with milk, but with abundant rainfall, it leads to more vegetation growth for grazing and fewer elephant deaths due to dehydration and starvation. 

The population boom is also partly due to the country’s anti-poaching efforts. The number of elephants poached in Kenya in 2020 has dropped significantly from previous years- 7 elephants have been killed by poaching this year, compared to 34 in 2019 and 80 in 2018. Park rangers are also doing their jobs to protect the elephants from poachers in Kenya. For example, a project named tenBoma was developed in Kenya in 2018, which connects the local communities to regional and international agencies to stop elephant poachers. The wildlife service and community rangers in Kenya are trained to become data analysts to help predict a poacher’s next strike. Furthermore, the Kenyan government has also implemented harsher penalties for anyone convicted of poaching wildlife or trafficking wildlife trophies, including heavy fines and jail sentences.

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As mentioned previously, the current pandemic situation has been a largely positive event for the elephant populations in Africa, especially in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, however, local people who depend on tourism have been negatively affected and land use conflicts between humans and elephants have increased. Human-elephant conflict is a big issue in Kenya; elephants can pose a real threat to subsistence farmers at the interface between the elephants’ range and the agricultural land, which may result in further injuries and mortalities. The farmers living next to protected areas lose their crops and often depend on food aid. Besides, the nomadic pastoral communities who live next to wildlife lose at least one animal every week to predatory wildlife. An incident in 2019 saw a herd of elephants invading farms and destroying crops, such as vegetables, bananas and maize in Kavilila village in Subukia, Nakuru County. The residents incurred losses of at least Sh2 million (USD$18 000) and they had to relocate their homes to a more secure place.

Recently, a leading elephant expert, Dr Winnie Kiiru, who works with the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation, was interviewed by the BBC News regarding the elephant baby boom in Kenya. She emphasised that it is necessary to diversify livelihoods and ensure that communities dependent on wildlife can earn despite the effects on tourism. She also called on African governments to solve the human-wildlife conflicts effectively, as well as to raise money to repair the damage on the conservation industry caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Scraping sounds fill the nights at Mapungubwe, a national park at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, where the borders of Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa meet. Families of elephants relentlessly tear the bark off ancient baobab trees, scraping their tusks on the trees and digging deep into their cores to extract the fibrous, moisture-rich interior.

How many baobab trees are left?

A drive through the national park reveals that dozens of these giant trees have been severely damaged, many left with gaping holes in their trunks. Biotechnician Stephen Khosa of South African National Parks (SANParks) recently completed a survey on baobab (Adansonia digitata) mortality. Of the 501 trees surveyed between 2005 and 2020, he writes in an email, 6% have died. According to a study in the African Journal of Ecology, the typical mortality rate for baobab populations is between 1.1 and 3.7%.

The baobab deaths in Mapungubwe are attributed to elephant damage and other related factors, such as a multi-year drought that started in 2015 and, possibly, groundwater abstraction from mining in the direct vicinity of the park.

However, the true mortality rate could be much higher. There is considerable uncertainty in the survey’s results: Khosa confirmed in an email that “there was a significant monitoring gap in this project between 2009 & 2020.”

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baobab trees
Elephants digging into a baobab tree in Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa. Image by Nathalie Bertrams for Mongabay.

A. digitata are resilient trees: the mature baobabs here in the northern parts of Limpopo have an average age of between 300 and 500 years; the oldest specimen in Africa has been dated to 2,500 years. Jens Gebauer, at Germany’s Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences, calls it “one of the most impressive plants in coping with drought due to its great ability to store water in its enormous trunks. This allows the baobab to grow in very dry regions and cope with drought and heat.”

The trees can absorb up to 80% of their volume in water, with large trees storing as much as 140,000 liters (37,000 gallons).

Mapungubwe is no ordinary national park. In addition to an abundance of wildlife, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a vital archaeological resource, home of the only known San rock art painting of a rhino and one of the best-known pieces of pre-colonial African art, a golden rhino statue. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe (900 to 1300 C.E.) was part of a trade network that stretched all the way to India and China. Ivory and gold from here were traded for porcelain and glass.

The baobabs of Mapungubwe have helped to record the kingdom’s rise and fall. A 1,000-year climatic record of the area was developed by analyzing the carbon isotope values of baobab trees. From this, we know that around 1300, a severe drought destroyed the kingdom’s agricultural base. Mapungubwe was abandoned, and its remarkable civilization shifted north to what is today Zimbabwe.

While that 14th-century drought was due to a natural fluctuation of rainfall patterns, the present drought is linked to climate change from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and overuse of water resources. Southern Africa has been enduring a severe drought since 2015, heavily affecting its people and wildlife.

A 2018 analysis of the drought, led by Friederike Otto of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, concluded that “the likelihood of an event like the observed 2015–2017 drought has increased by a factor of 3.3 (1.4-6.4). Unlike for other drought analyses in other parts of Africa, this is a very clear result with anthropogenic climate change having significantly increased the likelihood of such a drought to occur.”

Corli Wigley-Coetsee, an ecologist at SANParks’ Savanna and Arid Research Unit, says the Limpopo River’s water resources are overallocated and underprotected: next to diamond mining operations and open-cast and underground coal mining, at least 23 prospecting licenses for coal mining have been granted near the national park, some in the buffer zone, exacerbating water scarcity in the park.

She also points out that in the ecological system of the proposed Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area, borders like the Limpopo River are no longer a barrier to elephants: the river often dries up.

Elephant populations in Botswana and Zimbabwe are under significant pressure from drought, overpopulation and poaching, and are on the move as a result. Botswana alone hosts 130,000 elephants. Many find a safe haven in Mapungubwe National Park.

With their water-rich interiors, baobab trees are part of the park’s attraction to elephants. The natural process of elephants digging into these trees doesn’t usually cause lasting damage. Baobabs have a unique ability among trees to recover their bark and tissue, says David Baum from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied the trees for more than 30 years. “Baobabs have coexisted with elephants for millions of years, which probably explains why they have evolved such a remarkable ability for regrowth,” he says.

Baobab trees have evolved to tolerate occasional elephant damage and benefit from elephants eating their fruit and dispersing the seed, Baum says. But at times of severe water shortage, when elephants exploit the trees too heavily, a baobab will eventually collapse. Some simply re-sprout. But if the structural damage is too severe, the tree can die.

According to South African baobab ecologist Diana Mayne, research suggests that lack of precipitation, climate extremes and weather fluctuations most negatively affect baobabs even when they’re not being hollowed out by elephants. “Baobabs are vulnerable to drought-induced embolism, similar to an embolism from a thrombosis or heart attack in humans,” she says.

Elephants are complex, sentient, intelligent and emotional beings responding to human-induced changes in their environment. Hennie Lötter, from the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Philosophy, an expert in the ethics of elephant conservation, says humans have a distinct moral obligation to guarantee their flourishing. In a recent paper, he writes, “We have conquered about 90% of elephant habitats and in the process we have reduced their numbers tremendously compared to the large numbers of elephants alive merely 200 years ago.”

Temperatures in Southern Africa could rise by 5-6°C (9-10.8°F) by the end of the century due to global greenhouse emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Severe droughts will be a regular part of the region’s future, affecting both baobabs and elephants.

Elephants no longer have room to maneuver: they are trapped between climate change, habitat destruction and poaching. For Lötter, safeguarding the space for them to flourish is bound up in the health of the wider ecosystems of Southern Africa and beyond. “We can safeguard elephant flourishing only if we simultaneously guarantee the well-being of the other members of the global biosphere,” he says, “and the healthy functioning of the global biosphere itself.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Tristen Taylor and Nathalie Bertram, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


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.

Wildlife authorities in Botswana are investigating the mysterious deaths of over 150 elephants over a three-month period in the Okavango Delta in the northwest of the country, although poaching and poisoning have been ruled out. 

According to reports, the carcasses have been found intact, suggesting that they were not poached. Poisoning by humans and anthrax has also been ruled out, the latter of which is naturally occurring in soil in this region of Botswana and which killed more than 100 elephants in 2019.

Regional Wildlife Coordinator, Dimakatso Ntshebe, says, “We are still awaiting results on the exact cause of death.”

While Africa’s overall elephant population is declining, Botswana is a conservation success story. Thanks to well managed reserves in the country, elephant numbers have increased from 80 000 in the late 1990s to 130 000 today. Botswana is home to almost a third of Africa’s elephants. 

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Why are elephants dying in Botswana? 

However, as the population grows, so too have conflicts grown between elephants and farmers; they are considered pests to farmers, whose crops have been destroyed by roaming elephants and in 2017, nine stray elephants were accidentally electrocuted after one elephant bumped into a telephone pole and a power line fell on them. 

Last year, President Mokgweetsi Masisi lifted a five-year ban on big game hunting imposed by the previous administration, but the COVID-19 outbreak meant that the hunting season in April was unsuccessful as hunters from badly-hit countries could not enter Botswana. 

Officials have warned local villagers not to consume the dead animals’ meat and are burning the carcasses. They expect more animals to die over the coming weeks. 

Ntshebe says, “We are still experiencing elephants dying in the Okavango Panhandle. We also see elephants that show that they are sick and are on the verge of dying.” 

An international wildlife watchdog says that poaching on endangered species could rebound as authorities divert attention to enforcing COVID-19 lockdown measures, and reports stockpiling of ivory and other animal products. 

The Wildlife Justice Commission says that a ban on the sale of wild animals in China is causing backlogs in smuggling networks of pangolin scales and ivory across Southeast Asia and warned that gangs and syndicates are adapting to tighter border controls amid the pandemic.

The WJC has reported stockpiles of ivory in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. In Vietnam, smugglers had access to 22 tonnes of pangolin scales. 

The pangolin is one of the most trafficked animals on the planet, their scales desired for their medicinal qualities in many Asian countries. Several studies have suggested that the emergence of COVID-19 in China was from the virus passing to humans from pangolins, prompting authorities in Beijing to ban the trade and sale of wild animal products.

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Sarah Stoner, WJC’s director of intelligence, says, “Brokers intend on returning their operations to previous levels as soon as possible. The stockpiling of huge quantities of wildlife products in many of the key countries concerned presents investigative opportunities for law enforcement.”

Tate, former Marine and the founder of VetPaw, a group of American military veterans who fight poachers in a remote private reserve in South Africa, says “poaching doesn’t stop just because there’s a virus- if anything, it picks up.” 

Stoner echoes this view, saying that she expects high-value wildlife smuggling and poaching to rebound when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. 

A global lockdown has meant that authorities and resources are being diverted to law enforcement and medical aid to help those affected with the virus. This has left a pocket of opportunity for criminal syndicates to take advantage of the reduced surveillance of protected areas and park closures, leading to several seizures of illegal wild animal trades across Asia and Africa.

There have been several major busts of illicit animal products across Asia and Africa following most of the world going into lockdown, including the seizure of more than six tonnes of pangolin scales in Malaysia at the end of April. 

Stoner warns that governments need to enforce stricter border controls. She says, “additional resources should be allocated to this problem and not merely diverting current resources to focus on the markets and leave organised crime a free hand.” 

Africa has always been a hotspot for poaching, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, poachers have encroached on land that they normally wouldn’t visit in tourist hot spots, which are now empty of visitors and safari guides. 

Botswana officials are evacuating black rhinos in the Okavango Delta, after a surge of rhino killings by poachers in March that left at least six animals dead. They consider the evacuation necessary because they’re increasingly concerned that poachers are encouraged by the absence of safari tourists in the region during the pandemic. Reduced human presence allows poachers to move around more freely and last month, six poachers were killed by law enforcement, according to Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism.

The Botswana government released a statement saying that it has been intensifying anti-poaching surveillance efforts in the past month. 

Further aggravating the issue is that people working in tourism are being laid off and national parks that provide wildlife with a safe haven are losing revenue. All three national parks in Rwanda have temporarily closed, along with Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Kruger National Park in South Africa. 

As the virus harms African economies and raises unemployment levels, people may become desperate for income, turning to poaching to make a living 

Poaching threatens to send black and white rhinos, elephants and other African wildlife into extinction over the next few decades. Since 1960, the black rhino population has dropped 97.6%. In the last 21 years, the lion population has dropped 42%, according to the World Wildlife Fund. At least 35 000 African elephants are killed each year. 

Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve marks a year without losing a single elephant to ivory poaching.

Elephant Poaching Statistics 

Half a decade ago, with rising demand for ivory in the world market, poachers ran amok in Niassa Reserve killing thousands of elephants. In 2009, over 15,000 elephants had roamed free in the reserve that spans over 42,000 sq km–an area larger than Taiwan–in a remote part of northern Mozambique. But 70% of them were killed by 2015 as the rampant poaching went unchecked.

Life for the remaining 4500 elephants continued to be dotted by serious threats despite the national government introducing new anti poaching measures. 200 more elephants were killed in the following two years.

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But a new collaborative approach taken by the government and conservationists brought the poaching death toll down to zero in the last 12 months.

How to stop elephant poaching?

The Mozambique government teamed up with two conservation groups–the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the Niassa Conservation Alliance–to implement a well-coordinated anti-poaching strategy last year. The plan included aerial surveillance and deployment of a newly formed rapid-intervention police force capable of being quickly dispatched to remote poaching locations in the wilderness, in areas where poachers previously roamed unhindered by the law.

Year-round air surveillance relied on a Cessna aircraft and a helicopter. Air patrols were further strengthened during the wet summer season–a period running from December 2018 to May 2019–when the elephants were most vulnerable to poaching.

Unlike the reserve’s normal rangers, the new rapid-intervention police force was better armed and was empowered to arrest suspected poachers. The force’s ability to immediately arrest the poachers made a real impact. They processed each case within 72 hours and submitted it to the local prosecutor. Meanwhile, the government fast-tracked the cases in the court and prosecuted a number of suspects under the revised conservation law.

The government also invested more in improving Niassa’s radio communication system leading to better coordination between surveillance and enforcement teams. Besides stopping every single poacher from entering into the nature reserve, the police also cleared a number of illegal mining and fishing camps within the boundary.

Anti-poaching measures by various African nations together with an ivory trade ban by countries including China, have significantly reduced the threats African elephants face. A recent study finds that African elephant poaching rates have dropped by 60% in the last six years. The annual poaching mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa fell from 10% in 2011 to less than 4% in 2017. Yet the rate of annual elephant losses still exceeds the birth rate. Africa’s elephant population has plummeted from an estimated few million around 1900 to a little more than 400,000, according to a survey. The recovery of elephant populations will require as much as 90 years even if poaching were to be completely eradicated from Africa tomorrow. Gaps in policy and enforcement, coupled with corruption, and sluggishness on behalf of most local governments are still major challenges that hinder conservation efforts of elephants in the continent. 


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