Saturday, July 4, 2020

Mysterious illness kills Okavango elephants

The Director of the Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) Dr Letlhogile Modisa has said that the investigations into the mysterious deaths of scores of elephants in the Okavango panhandle is a complex process. 

Speaking in an interview, Modisa acknowledged that they have not yet concluded their investigations on samples that were taken from the carcasses of elephants that were found in the Okavango Delta. 

“We do tests and then we have to go and confirm. It’s a whole complex thing. It takes time for the results to be released because we work as a team. The delay is due to transporting of samples within laboratories,” he said. 

Asked if they have notified the World Health Animal Organization about the mysterious death of elephants, Modisa said while Botswana is expected to submit its report next year, they can only incorporate information relating to the death of elephants when the results of the causes of death have been established. 

For his part, Regional Wildlife Coordinator, Dimakatso Ntshebe confirmed that more than 162 elephants have died mysteriously in recent months.  He said they have since sent specimen and samples of dead elephants to United States of America, South Africa and Zimbabwe for testing.

 “What we have also discovered is that the pattern of death is similar for all carcasses that were found in the area. They are all dying from the same mysterious agent,” he said. 

According to Ntshebe, they have discovered that the carcasses of elephants that died mysteriously could have died within a space of a month and not two or three months as previously reported. 

“What we have now discovered is that the latest carcasses could be part of the elephants that died in May, which we previously did not locate,” he said. 

Ntshebe said they were unbale to locate some of the carcasses at the time because “it is not easy to traverse the difficult terrain that is the Okavango Delta.” 

He said the number of carcasses were expected to surge as they intend to undertake a tour of the delta after securing help in the form of helicopters from the Ministry of Wildlife and other stakeholders. 

He said travel restrictions due to COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in the delay of the results on the exact cause.  

Ntshebe said the deaths were first reported on 11th May 2020 and carcasses were found intact ruling out possibilities of poaching. He said upon further investigations, anthrax and human poisoning were ruled out as possible causes of death. Ntshebe said the death of elephants were a cause for concern as the country rely on tourism as another source of revenue. 

Botswana which has a population of 2.3 million has an elephant population of 130 000 and this has led to human wildlife conflict. In 2018, President Mokgweetsi Masisi came under fire after he lifted a 2014 hunting ban. 

A local NGO, Elephants Protection Society said it was also at a loss as to what could have led to the deaths of such a number of elephants in the delta at alarming rate. 

The NGO’s director, Oaitse Nawa said although they are still to establish what the cause of deaths could be, it was not the first time that such a pestilence struck elephants in the country.

 “In 2018, a mysterious agent like the one that is responsible for such large number of deaths of elephants also hit the country in the north-western part of the country,” he said.


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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.