Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The mystery over dead elephants in Botswana continues

The troubling mass death toll of elephants in Botswana is garnering international concern which is set to put pressure on the Botswana government to get to the bottom of the mystery that lies behind the over 100 elephants which died without apparent cause.

In the past three months, reports started trickling in, detailing the unusually large number of dead elephants strewn across northern parts of Botswana. In a country known to be home to the largest herd of elephants, estimated at over 130,000, the initial suspicion was poachers who have becoming daring in their hunt for ivory.

However, what puzzled the country’s wildlife officials was that the elephants appeared to have died without apparent cause and even more dumbfounding, the majestic animals still had their ivories intact, an observation that led to authorities quickly ruling out the possibility of poachers being behind the massacre. The officials were also quick to downplay poisoning, explaining that other animals would have died as well.

The Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism ministry has been criticised for the lack of urgency over the rising death toll of elephants, with figures now in the north of 170. In May,  the ministry officials revealed that they have collected samples from the dead carcasses and were awaiting post-mortem results.

Shockingly, almost a month later, the wildlife officials announced that the samples are yet to be sent to South Africa, attributing the delay to travel restrictions put in place to slowdown the spread of coronavirus. The delay further adds to the growing concerns that the country appears to indifferent to mass deaths, characterised by the slow response as bodies of carcass continues to pile.

This week, the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, an international non-governmental organisation that lobbies and advocates for elephants and rhinos welfare, sought to solicit outside intervention, citing deep concerns over the Botswana government which they said appeared to “to show few signs of seriousness and urgency on behalf of investigating the hundreds of elephant deaths occurring within the jurisdiction of that nation.”

In the letter addressed to South Africa’s minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Dallas Creecy, and copied to Botswana’s regional wildlife coordinator, Dimakatso Ntshebe, the organisation said that any forensic analysis undertaken to determine the causal factors of the mass mortality in Botswana must be scientific, conscientious and transparent. The NGO added that trans-border cooperation can bring about substantial benefits both in view of conservation and in maintaining the accountability and transparency of SADC’s member nations.

“The Global March for Elephants and Rhinos Organization (GMFER) hereby officially requests the engagement and assistance of South Africa’s Minister Barbara Creecy in her role as the incoming chair of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment. We respectfully request that Minister Creecy engage diplomatic ties to work with Botswana to immediately unravel the reasons leading to the mass deaths of elephants in the Okavango Delta region,” read part of the letter.

The letter appears to question the wildlife officials’ decision to quickly rule out the involvement of poachers, especially early in the investigations. Though Botswana’s national laboratory has ruled out Anthrax as cause of death, GMFER says the possibility of poisoning cannot be ruled out conclusively if forensically viable samples from the dead animals are yet to be been sent to a reputable lab for a thorough analysis that will determine the underlying cause.

The likelihood of the elephants dying from being poisoned by poachers was ignited this week when the Zimbabwe police found fruits laced with cyanide at Victoria Falls, a key area usually frequented by elephants which move between Botswana and the neighbouring countries. Poachers have in the past used oranges injected with cyanide as bait, poisoning the elephants and later cutting off the tusks after the animals drop dead.

“It is not unreasonable to speculate that similar tactics are being employed in Botswana to kill elephants, the carcasses then left to dry in order for tusks to be retrieved -with relative ease- months later. The remote nature of the locale and the absence of relevant authorities on the ground continue to create opportunities for both speculation and criminal behaviour,” GMFER said in the letter.

The lobby group further questioned the government’s lackadaisical approach to the mysterious deaths at a time where any unknown death causes should spur immediate action given the outbreak of Covid19.

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