Friday, October 23, 2020

NGO and State disagree over elephant carcasses figures

The State may be headed for a showdown with non-governmental organization (NGO) Elephant Without Borders (EWB) over the number of elephants that have died mysteriously in the Okavango panhandle.

A confidential report by EWB prepared for the Department of Wild Life and National Parks that was obtained by the media indicated that the number of elephant carcasses were 356 in the Okavango Panhandle.

Hardly a day after the report was made available to the media, Government followed suit and stated that since March 2020, to date, 275 elephant carcasses have been verified against the 356 reported cases.

This will not be the first time that government and EWB clashed over the figures relating to carcasses of poached elephants. Government at the time, in 2019, questioned the methodology used by Elephants Without Borders adding that the number of carcasses of poached elephants was at odds with the figures discovered by government officials.

Acting Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism Kelebaone Maselele has said following the mysterious deaths of elephants in the areas around Seronga village in north-western Botswana since March 2020, to date, 275 elephant carcasses have been verified against the 356 reported cases.

Maselele said investigations regarding the unexplained deaths of elephants are still ongoing.

She said three laboratories in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Canada have been identified to process the samples taken from the dead elephants which will be interpreted against field veterinary assessments of clinically ill and dead elephants.

Maselesele said tusks are being removed from the dead elephants and carcasses within proximity to human settlements continue to be destroyed.

“The ongoing investigations, into the deaths of the elephants, have revealed no evidence of poaching so far,” she said.

According to the EWB, shortly after their findings, letters offering support, accompanied by a technical report were sent to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP).

The report says EWB returned to the area in June, 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 elephant 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,” reads the report.

This second report, EWB said, includes the findings from a routine monitoring flight flown on the 14 June 2020. On this flight EWB counted 187 dead elephants.

“These carcasses are new additions to the 169 carcasses previously reported, bringing the total to 356 dead elephants in the Okavango Panhandle.

Adhering to previous reporting protocol, this report provides scientific evidence of a concerning nature which will require quick action from the authorities and has been sent to appropriate personnel following established reporting procedures that EWB has consistently adhered to throughout our partnership with DWNP,” the report says.

The report says a team of four people counted elephant carcasses. The team flew in a helicopter, which was advantageous to document carcass locations more accurately than from a plane.

“Dr Chase acted as a front seat recorder and observer, helping locate, count 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 report says.

The report says a GPS track log of our flight recorded in real-time allowed the pilot to avoid flying the same flight path and the possibility of double counting carcasses.

“The team counted 187 new elephant carcasses. Together with the 169 carcasses seen on the 25 May, the total number of dead elephants is 356. Consistent with our previous observations, 70% of elephant carcasses were considered recent, having died about a month ago, and 30% of the carcasses appeared fresh, ranging from one day to two weeks old,” the report says.

There was good evidence to show elephants of all ages and sex appear to be dying, the report says. It says the elephant carcasses counted were mostly observed in NG11, north east of Seronga Village.

The report says many carcasses were near natural waterholes (pans) in Mopane woodland. Elephant carcasses also occurred along trails and died in a sternal position on their chest, suggesting a fast and sudden death.

“The scale and pattern of the elephant mortality occurring in the Okavango Panhandle needs further scientific investigation. Carcasses’ we counted from the air are in remote and inaccessible Mopane Wood,” the report says.

It says several live elephants that we observed 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.

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