After the mysterious death of over 360 elephants in Botswana since May this year, authorities are struggling to send samples for analysis to international agencies to determine the cause of the deaths due to the lack of flights because of the COVID-19 lockdown in the region. The disturbing incident occurred at the swampy Okavango Delta.

Botswana is home to a third of Africa’s declining elephant population and has the world’s largest elephant population, believed to be more than 130,000 and the Delta itself carried an elephant population of over 15,000.

The sudden mass deaths of elephants, which scientists have called a conservation disaster, were first spotted during an aerial survey in early May.

“Some of the elephants we observed were moving about in circles in a kind of semi-conscious way before just falling down and perishing instantly,” an unnamed pilot involved in aerial surveys told local media.

Scientists believe that there might be a neurological cause for the deaths because of this. But what caused this sudden neurological decadence is still unknown.

Authorities have also ruled out illegal poaching by ivory hunters, something that is a cause for concern in the region, as the carcasses had their tusks intact when they were removed by government officials.

The mass die-off could be explained by either a poison or some as-yet unknown pathogen, according to The Guardian. Already, officials have ruled out anthrax, the carcasses tested negative for that bacterium, said Scott Schlossberg, a research consultant for Elephants Without Borders. 

Earlier too, more than 100 elephants had died over a two-month period in the winter of 2019 in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, though drought that extensively hit the region during that time could be attributed as the main reason behind those deaths.

Chris Thouless, head of research at the conservation organization Save the Elephants, which is based in Kenya, said the viral disease encephalomyocarditis, which was transmitted by rodents, could be to blame. The disease causes neurological impairment and is known to have killed 60 elephants in South Africa’s Kruger National Park in the mid-1990s.

Even as many environmentalists are calling it a conservation disaster and blaming the country’s government for not doing much, Botswana has denied the allegation saying elephants are not a major population in the delta as there are several other animals too. This claim also rules out the possibility of poisoning because had the water or soil been poisoned naturally or by design, it would have affected other animals as well and not just the elephants.

Many warn that this could also result in an additional public health crisis. Many of today’s diseases — COVID-19, Ebola, HIV, SARS, MERS — originated in wildlife.

Be what it may, if something is not done immediately, these assets of Africa will perish as the mortalities continue to rise. Elephants are endangered in most parts of the world, primarily due to their tusks, and Africa being home to the largest population of the pachyderm, must be extra careful to protect the last major natural habitat of the species. Global conservation agencies and environment funds must assist the Botswana government with funds and technology for early assessment of the damage and chalking out the possible mitigation efforts taken up thereafter.

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