An “urgent and confidential” report from a wildlife conservation NGO called Elephants Without Botswana to the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism warns that more elephants could die from a mysterious illness that has been claiming their lives.
“Personal observations of elephants near waterholes suggest more elephants could die of this mysterious ailment,” writes EWB’s Director, Dr. Mike Chase, in a report titled “356 Dead Elephants in the Okavango Panhandle” that he compiled for the Director of Wildlife and National Parks.
A large number of elephants in the Okavango Delta Panhandle (the upper part that looks like the handle of a pan on a map) have been dying mysteriously since May. In his report, Chase says that while flying in the region on May 25, EWB counted 169 dead elephants.
He writes in the report: “In June, EWB returned to the area, conducting routine elephant monitoring and noticed additional dead elephants, which had not been seen during our first visit to the area. Following the standard recording procedures when EWB observes elephants carcasses, our team counted, GPS referenced and photographed each elephant carcass seen from the air and recorded any distinguishing signs or unusual behaviours in live elephants.”
A routine monitoring flight on June 14 resulted in the discovery of 187 dead elephants, bringing the total number to the 356 quoted in the title of Chase’s report. The report says that there is “good evidence to show elephants of all ages and sex appear to be dying.”
A team of four people participated in the counting process.
“The team was flying in a helicopter, which was advantageous to document carcass locations more accurately than from a plane,” writes Chase in the report. “Dr Chase acted as a front seat recorder and observer helping locate, record and photograph each carcass. Two rear seat observers searched for carcasses. The left rear seat observer seated behind Dr. Chase took GPS locations when we were as close to the carcass, as possible, as an undeniable reference point. The GPS and camera were time coded to correlate the carcass with the photograph. A GPS track log of our flight recorded in real time allowed the pilot to avoid flying the same path and the possibility of double-counting the carcasses.”
The team found the elephants had died in a sternal position on their chest, which Chase says suggests a fast and sudden death.
“The scale and pattern of elephant mortality occurring in the Okavango Panhandle needs further scientific investigation. Carcasses we counted from the air are in remote and inaccessible Mophane woodland. Similar elephant deaths have not been recorded in Namibia, who have been informed of this incident.”
EWB puts the first deaths at early as April and has concluded that they have been continuing for three months now. The report says that the EWB team also observed live elephants that appeared to be weak, lethargic and emaciated.
“Some elephants appeared disorientated, had difficulty walking, showed signs of partial paralysis or a limp in their legs. One elephant was observed walking in circles, unable to change direction although being encouraged by other herd members. We saw a dead horse in the middle of a natural waterhole (pan). Carcasses of other wildlife species were not seen. Although we expected to see more vultures, those observed on fresh carcasses showed no signs of concerning abnormal behaviour. We saw no signs that humans had attempted to chop skulls to remove tusks.”
About 70 percent of the carcasses are said to be clustered around pans. Nine carcasses encircled a pan with rain-filled water and EWB estimates that many of the larger pans that were GPS-plotted will probably hold water for the next two months – meaning July and August. The report says that the pans are in Mophane woodland where there is ample food and water and where most living elephants were seen.
“Elephants seen near pans with water appeared physically weakened,” the report says. “The team saw two large herds of elephants numbering over 200 elephants, EWB’s 2018 aerial survey results estimate about 15 000 elephants in NG 11, NG 12and NG 13 [areas]. There are low numbers of other wildlife species in the area of these die-offs.”
There was one discovery that set off alarm bells – a suspicious camp under Mophane trees near a pan with several small fires and a drying rack made from chopped wood.
“Looking at the age of the fires and axe marks on bushes, we thought the camp was used recently,’ the report says.
EWB has made an offer of support that the government appears to be in no hurry to take up. In the report, Chase says that EWB has made “numerous offers to support DWNP to address this escalating and concerning mass mortality. With respect, we repeat our determination to work collaboratively with DWNP to understand the cause for this deteriorating situation by committing our resources, personnel and scientific expertise. A coordinated partnership will resolve the growing mystery surrounding these unusual elephant deaths.”
One of those resources is EWB’s plane, equipment and experienced crew. Even as it makes this offer of expert knowledge, EWB is already sharing it and making recommendations. The report says that if disease is the cause of death, then organ samples from the dead elephants should be collected to determine which bacteria or virus killed them.
“These samples need to be correctly preserved in formalin before being sent quickly to laboratory testing. We recommend Dr. Chris Fogging at the Victoria Falls Wildlife Disease and Forensics Laboratory, who is renowned in this discipline… if poisoning (e.g. cyanide) is suspected, stomach fluid must be collected and frozen in an airtight bottle. A frozen eye might be sufficient to detect cyanide. Aluminum phosphide is a rodenticide poison which is easily accessible. The meat from poisoned dead animals probably has no risk for scavengers because phosphide disappears as a gas, which is also a major problem to detect it from samples of poisoned animals. In addition to sample collection from fresh dead elephants, a very substantial volume of scientific data can be collected from these carcasses,” the report says.
While it doesn’t say so in explicit terms, Chase’s report makes clear the fact that the government is not moving at the same speed with EWB. On June 16 this year, Chase met with the Regional Wildlife Officer and submitting “another letter” offering to work in partnership with DWNP to solve this mystery. While two letters have been sent to both the Ministry headquarters and DWNP, “no formal response to EWB’s correspondence has been forthcoming to date.”