Friday, October 23, 2020

UK biologist suspects Okavango farmers in death of elephants

The toxicology report that the Botswana government recently put out about the deaths of 356 elephants is not good enough for a Canadian-British conservation biologist and environmental consultant who has worked in Botswana. While the report says that natural neurotoxins killed the elephants, Dr. Keith Lindsay still thinks that something else may be responsible.

“… 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,” he writes in the Journal of African Elephants, which “was created by a group of concerned journalists and conservationists, who, after years of tracking and documenting the catastrophic decline of Africa’s elephant populations, have recognised the urgent need for a dedicated English news and commentary space to enhance and increase global awareness of the plight of Africa’s savanna and forest elephants.”

Lindsay offers 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 warns that if his theory is accurate, then there is 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.”What Lindsay finds most disconcerting about the way this whole affair was handled is what he sees as secrecy on the part of the government of Botswana (GoB).“They have not released any of the reports they have received, on elephant carcass numbers and locations or on tissue and environmental sample analyses,” he argues. “Because of this, it is impossible for anyone to judge objectively any of their pronouncements. Mistrust is the only likely outcome.”However, there is a plot twist.

Lindsay casts Elephants Without Borders (EWB) a local NGO that the government has fallen out with, in heroic terms. In 2018, EWB’s director, Dr. Mike Chase, sparked an international controversy that portrayed the government of Botswana in extremely bad light. CNN, BBC, Fox News, Sky News, Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Economist, The Times of London and other international media houses carried a story that quoted a confidential report that Chase had not first shared with the government. This year, another confidential report that Chase prepared on the 356 dead elephants also ended up dominating a whole news cycle in the west. The government is evidently no longer interested in working with EWB – something that both the Kasane-based NGO and Lindsay are unhappy about.

You certainly need the above background to understand the part of where Lindsay writes: “There were apparently offers of assistance with the collection of samples from elephants, both dead and still living but suffering, at an early stage, but these offers were turned down by the GoB, who wished to “go it alone”. Eventually, they did allow NGO assistance but only with a selected few that had played a deferential game with them. Because of this delay, the eventual collection of samples was far too late to allow meaningful results to emerge from analyses. As we have seen, no tests were able to demonstrate with certainty.”

The journal says that Lindsay, who is Canadian-British, “has over 40 years professional experience specialising in elephant ecology, captive elephant welfare and in international conservation development throughout the world – including Botswana.”

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