Saturday, December 9, 2023

Okavango farmers cleared in death of elephants

South African and American field researchers with knowledge of what is actually happening on the ground have absolved Okavango farmers of blame in the mysterious death of elephants.

Last year, Dr. Keith Lindsay, a Canadian-British conservation biologist and environmental consultant who has worked in Botswana, said that it was possible that thesefarmers were responsible for mysterious deaths whose toll stood at 356 at the time. Writing in the Journal of African Elephants, Lindsay said that “it does remain possible that farmers, for example, could have placed fruit and vegetables containing a short-lived neurotoxin at the margins of their fields near the villages fringing the southern margins of NG11.” The latter is an administrative area where most of the deaths have occurred.

Lindsay offered the possibility that “elephant families coming to raid crops, which were ripening at this time, would have encountered these poisoned baits and after consuming them, returned northwards to the vicinity of waterholes in the mophane woodlands. This hypothesis is at least as likely as the natural causes, and possibly more so, as it explains why only elephants were killed and only in this area.” He warned that if his theory was accurate, then there was a possibility of more elephants dying in the future: “If it was due to farmers unhappy with crop losses, there could and should be renewed and imaginative efforts to safeguard their interests and promote human-elephant coexistence. Because of the way this whole affair was handled, we have learned nothing and can draw no lessons for the future.”

In making this theory, Lindsay had never actually been to the Okavango to conduct any sort of research. On the other hand, a joint research team from the University of Pretoria in South Africa and Duke University in the United States have been to the area and are thus in a better position to make more authoritative pronouncements. According to these researchers, malicious poisoning and poaching are unlikely to have played a role.

“Other species were unaffected, and elephant carcasses had their tusks intact,” they write in an academic paper titled “The 2020 elephant die-off in Botswana”, adding in another part that there are no “reports of signs of malicious poisoning.”

The five-member research team is conducting a long-running research programme which considers regional elephant populations and their management. It has tracked 10 elephants within NG11 and several hundred elephants in other areas across southern and eastern savanna Africa.


Read this week's paper