Mystery Deaths of 360 Elephants Near Water Holes in Botswana Spark Fear of Health Risk

July 16, 2020 Updated: July 16, 2020

Warning: This article includes content that some readers may find disturbing.

The mysterious deaths of over 360 elephants in Botswana are stoking fears that a new public health risk may unfold.

Almost two months after the unexplained deaths around watering holes were first reported in May this year, experts and conservationists remain confounded, as the elephants do not appear to have been killed for their ivory.

Niall McCann, director of conservation for the United Kingdom charity National Park Rescue, told CNN that the deaths were “appalling.” Underlining the need to discover the cause, McCann said until a definitive cause of death is established, there are several scenarios from an elephant parasite to COVID-19.

“What I would like to emphasize is that this has the potential to be a public health crisis,” McCann said.

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So far, the elephant deaths have been concentrated in the Okavango Delta, within the area of around 8,000 square kilometers home to some 18,000 elephants, according to Reuters.

Botswana, home to the largest population of African elephants on the continent, is now testing the carcasses to determine the cause of the deaths. For now, it appears that only elephants have been struck down by this mystery illness; other species in the same areas as the elephant deaths remain unaffected.

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The Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation, and Tourism said in a statement they are waiting for further test results on the samples they sent to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Canada, but preliminary results have ruled out any known disease.

However, Reuters stated, based on the government report seen by it, that live elephants have also been seen and appeared physically weak.

“Several live elephants that we observed appeared to be weak, lethargic and emaciated. Some elephants appeared disorientated, had difficulty walking, showed signs of partial paralysis or a limp,” the report said. “One elephant was observed walking in circles, unable to change direction although being encouraged by other herd members.”

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Mmadi Reuben, the principal veterinary officer at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, told Reuters that a virus, vegetation, overnutrition following last year’s drought, or anthrax could be blamed. No similar elephant deaths have been reported in southern Africa. Locals have been told to stay away from the carcasses.

“We are not dealing with a common thing, it looks like it’s a rare cause,” Reuben said.

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Botswana, a landlocked nation, is a major range country for elephants in southern Africa and borders South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. It is believed to have an elephant population numbering 130,000, the largest in Africa.

Last year, Botswana had decided to scrap its 2014 ban on elephant hunting, which was greeted with international condemnation. Therefore, poaching has not been ruled out as it is not unknown for criminal gangs to poison elephants rather than shoot them.

With so many of the dead elephant bodies lying in the bush, the experts fear the carcasses will become a magnet for criminal gangs, ivory smugglers, who could also potentially become infected by whatever killed the elephants.

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Elephant tusks are a precious commodity on the black market, with China, Thailand, and Vietnam being the main markets. The illegal trade in ivory has been ongoing for decades, ever since a worldwide ban was imposed in 1989. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, African elephants remain vulnerable.

McCann emphasized while talking to CNN that it was important to identify what was killing elephants in such numbers, as the loss of elephants in Botswana was already “globally significant.”

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Until a conclusive cause of death is established in Botswana, experts believe these elephant deaths could, as feared, be the next public health issue for this African nation. Not to mention the significant hit to elephant conservation efforts.

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