Hundreds of Elephants Have Died in Botswana — and Officials Don't Know Why

Over the past two months, hundreds of elephants have died in Botswana, sparking grave concern among conservationists.

In early May, the local government was first contacted about a cluster of elephant deaths in the Okavango Delta, located in northern Botswana, said Dr. Niall McCann, director of conservation at National Park Rescue, according to WBUR.

By the end of the month, 169 elephants had been found dead, a number that more than doubled by the following month. To date, more than 350 elephants have been reported dead in the area, with 70 percent of deaths occurring near waterholes, according to The Guardian.

"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," Cyril Taolo, acting director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks told the newspaper in a statement.

"We have sent [samples] off for testing and we are expecting the results over the next couple of weeks or so," he said. "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."

Although the government has ruled out poaching as an explanation for the mass of elephant deaths, as the deceased animals were found with their tusks intact, poisoning remains a viable, and worrisome, explanation.

Dr. McCann has pointed out that in addition to being a "conservation disaster," humans could also be at risk.

"The Okavango Delta is a sponge for water. Much of that water ends up being consumed by people further down the line," he said in an interview, according to WBUR. "And if that's contaminated, the potential for human risk there is also very high."

According to local reports, elephants of all ages and sexes have been reported dead in recent months and a number of live elephants have also appeared to be weakened and emaciated, the BBC reported.

Conservationists have also criticized the local government for not working quickly to determine a cause of death.

"This is a mass die-off on a level that hasn’t been seen in a very, very long time. Outside of drought, I don’t know of a die-off that has been this significant," Dr. McCann said, according to The Guardian, which noted that the recent deaths amounted to about 3 percent of the elephant population in northern Botswana.

"The lack of urgency is of real concern and does not reflect the actions of a responsible custodian," added Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency in London. "There have been repeated offers of help from private stakeholders to facilitate urgent testing which appears to have fallen on deaf ears … and the increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking."

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