Over 350 elephants have died in Botswana since early May, and neither conservation experts nor government officials know why.
“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, the director of conservation at U.K.-based charity National Park Rescue told the Guardian this week.
The condition is affecting elephants of all ages and both sexes, according to local reports, and 70 percent of the deaths have been clustered around water holes. Witnesses say they’ve seen elephants walking in circles, indicating a possible neurological impairment.
It is unclear right now how rapidly the illness progresses in the animals. While some elephant carcasses have been found face down, suggesting a sudden collapse and death, other elephants have been found wandering around, growing increasingly emaciated, suggesting a slower progression. In any case, the illness is spreading at an astounding rate. At the end of May, 169 elephants had been found dead; by mid-June, that number had more than doubled.
According to Dr. Cyril Taolo, the acting director for Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, the government has sent samples from the deceased animals for testing and expects the results in the next couple of weeks. However, Taolo noted that “the COVID-19 restrictions have not helped in the transportation of samples in the region and around the world.”
The two most likely possibilities, per the Guardian, are poisoning or pathogens. And while people have raised the possibility of the condition being related to COVID-19, experts consider it unlikely.
Anthrax poisoning has already been ruled out, and although poachers in the region have been known to use cyanide to take down animals, scavenging animals like vultures do not appear to be dying around the carcasses.
“There is no precedent for this being a natural phenomenon but without proper testing, it will never be known,” said McCann.