Last week I shared the story of how hundreds of elephants are dying of mysterious and unknown causes in Botswana. The creatures appear to take ill very quickly, possibly with some kind of neurological disorder, then die from this strange affliction almost as rapidly. From the air, dozens of bodies have been spotted, leaving conservationists and researchers completely baffled as to what is causing this sudden loss of life amongst the elephant herds. But now, National Geographic has shared some theories as to why this is happening with experts looking to get to the bottom of this mystery before it becomes even worse.
While research into the situation is still ongoing, the preliminary thoughts on what is happening to these elephants based on past elephant die-offs has narrowed down the possibilities to a few options. Those include ingestion of toxic bacteria in water, anthrax poisoning, poisoning by humans, viral infection from rodents, or a pathogenic microbe. Scientists haven’t ruled out that it could be a combination of several of these factors, potentially brought on by heavy rainfalls following a years-long drought in Botswana. The Nat Geo article takes a deeper look at what each of those possibilities could mean in terms of further impact on the elephant herd and the longterm health of other animals.
Samples taken from the carcasses of a number of the creatures have been sent to labs in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Officials from Botswana say they have already received the preliminary results, but are waiting for follow up tests to confirm the findings. That suggests that they have a good idea of what is happening to the elephants, but are taking a cautious approach to revealing the cause. Either way, it seems that we can expect more concrete news on this story in the very near future.
So far, the deaths of the elephants have all taken place in a relatively small area, covering roughly 1000 square miles (2590 sq. km—thanks Bruce!) located to the northeast of the famed Okavango Delta. This area is said to be home to some 18,000 elephants, so while 300+ deaths is cause for concern, it isn’t a significant impact on the population there. Botswana’s elephant herds are massive compared to even other parts of Africa, where the creatures have often been hunted by poachers. Of the 350,000 wild elephants that are believed to still exist on the continent, 130,000 live within Botswana itself. Still, by discovering the cause of the die-off now, the hope is to cut it off quickly and prevent other animals from suffering the same fate. The number of deaths that have taken place so far may be an insignificant number of the entire population, but if we’ve learned one thing recently, it’s that a strange virus can spread very quickly. Hopefully that won’t be the case here.