Since early May, rural northern Botswana has seen more than 350 elephants die. The first cluster, of 169 individuals, was reported in the broad Okavango Delta, where over 15,000 elephants roam. Since then, the number has doubled, and is likely higher, since elephants dying out in the bush may not be easy to find.

“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. Niall McCann told The Guardian. McCann is the director of conservation at National Park Rescue, a charity in support of natural spaces based out of the UK.

As of yet, the cause of the elephant die-off is undetermined. Tests were run to rule out the most frightening possibility—anthrax—but they came back negative. No other testing has been done, despite the fact that elephant tourism accounts for a significant percentage of Botswana’s national income.

Locals report that elephants are seen displaying neurological impairments including walking in circles and erratic movements, and that they’re dying swiftly when they do, literally dropping in their tracks. “If you look at the carcasses, some of them have fallen straight on their face, indicating they died very quickly. Others are obviously dying more slowly, like the ones that are wandering around. So it’s very difficult to say what this toxin is,” McCann said.

The crisis has not been isolated to the elderly; the elephant die-off has affected animals of all ages, male and female. But finding out why elephants are dying at this rate has been a slow process, not least of which because the gathering of materials to test has taken what some activists see as too much time for a “responsible custodian” to take.

“There is real concern regarding the delay in getting the samples to an accredited laboratory for testing in order to identify the problem – and then take measures to mitigate it,” said Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency in London.

Doctor Cyril Taolo, acting director of Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks, is currently addressing the seeming lack of urgency in the government response. “We have sent [samples] off for testing and we expect the results over the next couple of weeks or so,” he said, blaming the COVID-19 crisis or the delay in handling. He did not say which laboratories the samples had been sent to.

Cyanide is a possibility for the elephant die-off. Poachers in the country have a history of using the poison, and locals report most of the deaths occurring around watering holes, but as yet, there have been no reports of scavenger animals dying or of elephants having their tusks removed—something poachers would definitely do if they had been responsible for the animals’ deaths.

Photo: Elephants in Okavango Delta, Botswana. Credit: Shutterstock