Over the past month and a half or so, we’ve been keeping a close eye on an ongoing mystery that has been unfolding in Botswana. Back in late June, it was revealed that more than 300 elephants had perished under mysterious circumstances, setting off alarms amongst conservationists around the world.
Since then, there has been a lot of speculation as to what the cause of death for these animals could potentially be, but with few real answers being offered. Now, we’re getting close to solving this case, as officials have revealed a bit more information from the field, although unanswered questions do remain.
The Global Pandemic Slows Response
When rangers and wildlife researchers launched an aerial survey of the Okavango Delta region in Botswana back in early June, they thought that it would be a fairly routine procedure. After all, with a global pandemic taking place, there were few travelers who were wandering out into this remote corner of the African country.
Thanks to the coronavirus lockdowns, no one had been out to take stock of what was happening in the wild for several months, although the expectation was that not much had changed over that time.
But when the rangers began spotting numerous dead elephants on the ground, they quickly realized that something was seriously wrong. From the air, it was impossible to tell exactly what had happened to the creatures, but it was clear that there was a mass die-off taking place.
Worse yet, whatever was killing the creatures wasn’t exactly clear, prompting concerns that a pandemic of a different kind would soon infect Botswana’s large elephant population.
Investigative Team Organized
It took them a while to organize a team that could investigate the situation on the ground. Eventually, however, a group of scientists and researchers were dispatched into the bush to see if they could find any answers.
Their goal was to locate as many of the elephant carcasses as possible in order to collect samples and other data from the dead animals. When that mission was accomplished, those samples were sent off to labs in Zimbabwe, South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. to be examined.
What Could have Caused all these Elephants to Die?
While Botswanan officials and conservationists waited for the actual results, a number of possibilities for the deaths were quickly eliminated. For instance, it was clear that the elephants hadn’t been killed by poachers, as their tusks were left untouched.
Anthrax was also quickly ruled out, as there were no traces of the material to be found in the area or on the creatures themselves. The fear was that it could be some new virus that was spreading through the elephant population, although after further scouting throughout the region, that doesn’t seem likely to be the case either.
Was it a Natural or Man-Made Event?
So what exactly is the cause of so many elephant deaths in such a relatively small area and over a short period of time? According to reports, it now seems that they were killed by “naturally occurring toxins” that were most likely ingested. The exact toxins have yet to be identified, however, but speculation is that it is some kind of bacteria, possibly found within the local water supply.
Dormant Bacteria in the Soil to Blame?
Last year, heavy rains brought severe flooding to the Okavango Delta region for the first time in years. It is possible that those waters washed up some dormant bacteria that have been hiding in the soil for a long time. Considering that the mass die-off now seems to have stopped, it also seems likely that this toxin has gone dormant again.
Whether or not it will reappear remains anyone’s guess, but more flooding in the future could dredge it up to do more damage at a later date.
More Information Coming Soon
The final—and more detailed—report is still being compiled by the Botswanan government, so expect to hear more about this down the line. While this has been a troublesome development, it does seem like we’re edging closer to finding some answers.
Best of all, the main population of elephants in the area appears to be safe and healthy. And while the death of 300 elephants is disturbing, it won’t have much of an impact on Botswana’s population as a whole. The wild herds there are said to number more than 120,000, making it by far the largest population in all of Africa.
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