Credit: Elcarito via Unsplash

Mysterious African elephant deaths solved

By Joy Dakers

After mysterious deaths in Botswana and Zimbabwe, elephant lovers will be happy to know that the cause has been found.

There have been recent reports about the mysterious deaths of over 300 elephants across Botswana and Zimbabwe. Both countries are home to approximately half of Africa’s elephant population (roughly 400,000). The deaths have perplexed experts across the globe, and there have been a number of explanatory reasons offered: poisoning, anthrax, dehydration and toxins in the water. The latter has proved to be the cause of the Botswanan elephants and presumed of the Zimbabwe elephants, although that is yet to be proven. 

Botswana has a large elephant population that roams across the Okavango Delta. In May, local conservationists first observed the mass elephant deaths in the Delta. In a three-hour helicopter trip, they counted over 150 elephant carcasses. A wildlife conservation charity – Elephants Without Borders (EWB) – claimed that elephants had been observed walking in circles obsessively before dropping dead, suggesting some sort of serious illness has been affecting the elephants.

It was first pondered if the number of deaths could be linked to poaching, as Botswana is the most populated area of savanna elephants remaining, with roughly 130,000 left in the country. However, this was quickly ruled out as the tusks remained on the elephants, and soon conservationists turned to other possible reasons of death. It was difficult for experts to reach an agreement, as there had to be soil and carcass samples taken, which is a taxing job due to the remote location of the elephants. This meant the bodies were often not found for several days, along with deterioration due to the hot sun, both of which risked erasing vital evidence. 

Eventually, after samples were sent to various countries such as Canada and the UK, it is believed that the deaths are related to cyanobacteria, a toxic bacterium that can occur naturally in standing water holes. They often start small but can grow into large blooms of green and blue algae. It is thought that the elephant’s water was contaminated by the cyanobacteria which created an unpleasant and almost sudden death. 

Similar reports came from Zimbabwe in late August, after 30 elephants were found dead with their tusks intact. Samples from the Zimbabwean elephants came back to show inflamed organs such as the liver, and reason for death is similarly thought to point to toxic water poisoning. The elephants were found around Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls. Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) believes it will not have any serious impact on the elephant population in Zimbabwe. In both countries, elephant populations are at historical highs, and therefore the bacterial disease should not have a large impact on these populations. However, in the rest of Africa elephant populations are depleting due to deforestation and global heating. 

Scientists believe that the warmth from global heating may be a key factor in these toxic water cases and the growth of cyanobacteria, as the toxic blooms tend to favour warmer water. The water depletion that comes with global heating means elephants are often dehydrated and will drink whatever water they can find. This can also lead to an increase in outbreaks of disease, especially in the large populations such as those found in Botswana and Zimbabwe. 

The sudden deaths of these elephants, despite not being critical to the survival of the population, do not make for a happy realisation. The elephant population is vulnerable in today’s climate with poachers and global heating. Although experts believe the toxic water will not be detrimental to the elephant population, it has caused the death of many elephants in the prime of their life, which is not good news for the reproductive vitality of elephants. The outbreak of deaths from toxic water follows the reintroduction of trophy hunting in Botswana due to the increasing population of elephants at the time (2019), with the first round of 70 licenses released earlier this year (this amounts to the legal killing of roughly 272 elephants). Trophy hunting has been put on hold due to coronavirus, and it will be interesting to see whether the Botswanan government believes it can continue after these toxic water deaths.

The deaths of over 300 elephants across the two countries is concerning; it points to many issues with today’s attitude towards these vulnerable giants that roam fewer and fewer areas of Africa every year. Between global heating, which causes issues such as dehydration and the right climate for toxic water, to the re-introduction of trophy hunting, it’s certainly time to rethink ways to help the elephant population remain at its historical high in both Botswana and Zimbabwe. 


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