Hundreds of elephants were found dead in Botswana in a mysterious mass-die off that has experts demanding urgent testing, according to a report.
At least 350 carcasses have been discovered near the county’s northern Okavango Delta since May, most of which were clustered around watering holes, The Guardian reported.
“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,” said Niall McCann, the director of conservation at the UK-based charity National Park Rescue.
“It’s a conservation disaster — it speaks of a country that is failing to protect its most valuable resource.”
The two most likely causes of death are poisoning or an unknown pathogen, however, the Botswana government has not yet tested samples so there’s no way of telling whether the animals pose a risk to people, according to the outlet.
“When we’ve got a mass die-off of elephants near human habitation at a time when wildlife disease is very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it seems extraordinary that the government has not sent the samples to a reputable lab,” McCann said in a reference to the coronavirus crisis.
“There is no precedent for this being a natural phenomenon but without proper testing, it will never be known.”
Witnesses say some of the elephants were seen walking around in circles — a sign of neurological impairment — and some appeared weak and emaciated.
“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,” said McCann.
Cyanide poisoning, which is often used by poachers in Zimbabwe, could be a cause of death but scavenging animals do not appear to be dying after eating the carcasses, according to local reports cited by the outlet.
Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency in London, also stressed the need for testing.
“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 Rice.
“The lack of urgency is of real concern…There have been repeated offers of help from private stakeholders to facilitate urgent testing which appear to have fallen on deaf ears.”
She added, “[The]increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking.”
Of the total number of elephants found dead, roughly 70 percent were near watering holes. Elephants of all ages and both sexes have been dying — an indication more could die in the coming weeks, according to experts.