One after the other, elephants dropped dead in northern Botswana’s Okavango Delta area since early May this year but there was no noticeable action by the Gaborone authorities. It had to take the death of close to 400 of the animals and the collective howl of the international conservation community for the government of Botswana find out the cause of these mysterious deaths.
Even by African standards – where there is never any hurry – this reaction was seen as too slow, prompting accusations that the southern African country was dragging its feet. Botswana is home to roughly 135,000 elephants, the largest herd in the world. What’s more, the country was accused of actually stalling investigations into the deaths.
“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,” Mary Rice, the executive director of the United Kingdom-based Environmental Investigation Agency was quoted as saying. “The lack of urgency is of real concern and does not reflect the actions of a responsible custodian. There have been repeated offers of help from private stakeholders to facilitate urgent testing which appear to have fallen on deaf ears. And the increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking.”
REACTION ‘SWIFT, RESPONSIBLE’
The suggestions of irresponsibility were denied. Dr. Mmadi Reuben, the principal veterinary officer in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks said the Botswana government had taken the deaths seriously and responded ‘swiftly, adequately and responsibly,’ as soon as information was received.
“Botswana responded swiftly,” Dr. Reuben, said in response to the charges by concerned conservationists. “A government investigating team has been on the ground since the first cases were reported.”
He said that some immediate testing had ruled out common causes like anthrax, which is caused by bacteria that occur naturally in soil. His department sent samples taken from the dead animals to laboratories in neighbouring Zimbabwe and South Africa as well as to Canada.
“It’s not going to be a one-off thing where we say, ‘we’ve sent out samples, now we’re done!’ It’s an on-going dialogue with different labs,” Dr Reuben added.
Some of the delays have been blamed on the current COVID-19 lockdown restrictions that have affected the country badly. It has even suffered a recent and severe fuel crisis.
It is these delays that have further infuriated conservationists with some, like Mark Hiley, the director of rescue operations at National Park Rescue, a UK-based non-profit organisation that combats poaching in Africa, expressing the feeling that the delays in testing could “literally be killing elephants.”
“In Botswana, there is a huge crisis for elephants unfolding” Hiley said. “The most important thing now is for an independent team to visit the area – sample multiple carcasses, the soil and waterways – and identify what is causing the deaths.”
“This started months ago, and by now, the government should be able to tell everyone clearly what this is. There are plenty of reputable laboratories that could have come up with a result by now.”
CAUSES OF DEATHS BAFFLING
The deaths have left experts with no clues as to whether the cause is something sinister, such as poisonings, or a naturally occurring disease from which the area’s elephants will bounce back.
There have been suggestions that the deaths could be a natural result of the huge population of the animals.
“As elephant populations grow, it is more likely that you will get mass die-offs, probably on a bigger scale than this,” Chris Thouless, the head of research at Save the Elephants, a Kenya-based conservation organization told The New York Times. “Death is no fun, but it comes to all living things.”
Dr. Thouless, who suspected that a naturally occurring disease is the most likely culprit, pointed out that Botswana recently emerged from a drought, which could have left some elephants stressed and more vulnerable to disease.
Botswana’s wildlife coordinator, Dimakatso Ntshebe, pointed out that the country was facing a shortage of resources, adding that international organisations should not just criticise, but also offer help.
The issue of scarcity of resources, coupled with suggestions that the elephant deaths could be a result of huge population torched off the emotive debate on the no-nonsense decision by the Geneva-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) forum to deny the country, together with its neighbours Zimbabwe and Namibia, the green light to trade in ivory and other elephant products.
During a CITES meeting held in August last year, it was decided to retain the long existing ban on international trade in elephant ivory. The three countries are thoroughly unhappy with the consistent refusal by the CITES forum to allow them to trade in ivory and other elephant products.
RENEWED CALLS FOR TRADE
“This is the right time for CITES to allow Botswana to sell its ivory stock,” said Siyoka Simasiku, executive director for Ngamiland Council of NGOs – the umbrella body of non-governmental organisations operating in Botswana’s Ngamiland area in matters related to sustainable social and economic development. “We need the money now more than ever because that money can actually assist the country to solve the mysterious death of elephants and also fund livelihoods of communities co-existing with wildlife,” Simasiku added.
Safari Tour Operators’ Association of Zimbabwe president, Emmanuel Fundira said that the problem of huge elephant population in Botswana and regional countries remains a major headache for wildlife authorities.
“What has happened in Botswana is extremely tragic and we can foresee the same problem extending into the region and it is a cause for concern. We all know that Botswana has reached the maximum number of elephants that the habitat can carry without causing destruction to the environment,” said Fundira.
GROWING ELEPHANT OVER-POPULATION BURDEN
In March last year, the leaders of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia met in Botswana for the Kasane Elephant Summit where they discussed their common problem of the growing burden of elephant overpopulation.
Later on in June of the same year, Zimbabwe hosted a wildlife summit where the issue of trade in elephant products dominated. The over 85,000 elephants in Zimbabwe’s parks are way above the country’s optimum carrying capacity of about 50,000. Namibia has a population of about 24,000.
The general sentiment in these countries – which have the largest herds of elephants and other wild animals in the world – is that by being denied the right to trade in the products of some of these animals under CITES, they are in effect being punished for the success of their conservation efforts.
In light of the shutting down of the tourism industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these countries have been complaining that with no revenue coming from tourism, these bloated animal populations become a real burden.