As It Happens

Conservationists can't explain why more than 300 elephants have dropped dead in Botswana

Something is killing Botswana's elephants and conservationists are at a loss to pinpoint a cause.

WARNING: This story contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some readers

A dead elephant is seen in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, May-June 2020, in this undated handout image. Neither conservationists nor the Botswana government have determined the cause of sudden death of at least 300 elephants in the area. (Reuters)


Botswana's elephants are dying and conservationists are at a loss to pinpoint the cause.

More than 300 elephants have simply dropped dead in the African nation's Okavango Panhandle, an "unprecedented" death toll for a single event in the elephant population, said Niall McCann, director of conservation for charitable organization National Parks Rescue.

McCann told As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal the two aerial surveys that documented the deaths also revealed many other animals "walking around with some form of neuronal dysfunction." 

Elephants Without Borders, a conservation group that conducted one of the surveys, said in a report that live elephants appeared disorientated and had difficulty walking. The EWB report put the death toll at 356, though Botswana Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism said Thursday the deaths numbered 275.

McCann said it's expected that some elephants will die every dry season or during drought due to lack of food and water, but he's never seen a single event take the lives of so many of the endangered mammals.

Several possible causes

There are three possible explanations for the deaths, said McCann. "We've ruled out the elephants being shot or speared, but we haven't ruled out the elephants being killed by poison."

Additionally, the elephants could have succumbed to some sort of naturally-occurring toxin, for instance anthrax or blue-green algae, he said.

"The third option is a pathogen, a disease. And there are lots of different potential diseases, potential candidates for what this could be," said McCann. "For me, that's just as likely as it is a poisoning event."

If a disease is behind the sudden deaths of these elephants, there's a significant risk that elephant populations outside of the area will also be affected.

"I think that's what we have to assume, is that this is not just going to be contained within this population," he said. "If it's left just to fester and continue, the prospect of that herd, the Botswana herd, being decimated, and losing three to four per cent of the global population is very real." 

Conservationists are calling on the Botswana government to bring in outside experts to investigate the elephants' cause of death. (REUTERS)

The Botswana government's top veterinarian has said that the country has responded swiftly and has been investigating on the ground since the first cases were reported.

But McCann said the response has fallen short and that Botswana must turn to outside experts.

"What we absolutely need is for an independent team to be granted access to the area, to travel to the site and sample multiple carcasses."

Fran Duthie, president and cofounder of Vancouver-based elephant advocacy group Elephanatics, said a loss on this scale is troubling given the numerous threats facing the animals.

"African elephant populations are in decline due to poaching, human-elephant conflict and the bushmeat trade," said Duthie. 

She said about eight per cent of savanna elephants are lost each year due to poaching, and that the increase in population in Africa has made human-elephant conflict an equally big issue. 

The animals are seen as a nuisance by some farmers, whose crops have been destroyed.

Mystery elephant deaths in Botswana

3 years ago
Duration 1:01
WARNING: Graphic images that may be disturbing to some. Botswana authorities are investigating what has killed 275 elephants in recent months.

COVID-19 implications and complications

Trade in elephant and other bushmeats is on the upswing during the current coronavirus pandemic, said Duthie in an email to CBC Radio.

"Tourism has shut down in Africa causing horrific hardship for so many. The results are catastrophic for the animals that also suffer from the fallout. No tourist dollars equals more poaching and an uptick in bushmeat trade."

McCann also said the pandemic may have important implications in these mysterious deaths.

Botswana is home to one-third of Africa's elephant population. (Reuters)

"What happened with COVID-19 was a breakdown in conservation, leading to a disease coming out of wildlife populations and into people," he said.

"What that demonstrates is that we need to have healthy and functioning ecosystems if we're to have healthy, functioning human societies as well. If we are to ignore a crisis happening in the Okavango Delta now in the elephant population, it's only likely to have a negative impact on human populations in the long run."

Written by Brandie Weikle with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson.