Mysterious deaths of elephants in Botswana leave scientists puzzled

“They say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is, you never forget an elephant.”

Bill Murray.

“An elephant is never won by anger; nor must that man who would reclaim a lion take him by the teeth.”

John Dryden.

“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.”

John Donne.

Nature’s giants are intelligent sensitive beings. They can experience pain and sadness like we do, and their social bonds in the wild are indestructible, lest human greed and cruelty interfere. Even though we have so much in common with them, we are also their greatest menace.

Although banned in 1989, the insatiable appetite for Africa’s ‘white gold’, particularly among China’s burgeoning middle class, has ensured that the illegal ivory trade continues to flourish. while Asia has become the biggest market, eager customers can still be found even in Europe and the US. It’s revenues fuel a wide range of political and military conflicts ravaging the continent. It is estimated that about 30 thousand African elephants are killed each year. Because so little has changed since the global ban came into effect more than 30 years ago, conservationists as well as animal rights activists continuously, and at times controversially, debate about the best way forward. It is one thing to Ban the trade in western capitals without providing adequate sources of income for Africa’s rural population. In fact, such a simpleminded political stance smacks of neocolonialism. Therefore, local activists favour an approach involving all stakeholders. But it is not just the ivory trade spelling trouble for the elephant. Due to a fast growing population, huge swaths of territory have been turned into farmland, thereby further encroaching on the elephants natural habitat.

Botswana, politically one of the most stable and least corrupt countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, boasts one third of the continent’s elephant population. Though precise numbers are notoriously difficult to come by, it is believed that 130 thousand elephants currently live there. Due to its many wildlife reserves, tourism provides a major source of revenue for both the government and rural communities. Brand Botswana has become closely associated with being the only sanctuary for elephants in Africa. Where poaching has decimated their population numbers in neighbouring countries, the elephant has thrived in Botswana. The country’s former president, Ian Khama, has been praised internationally for his strong commitment to wildlife conservation. In 2014, his administration put in place a ban on elephant hunting, and the country became an internationally renowned success story. But his successor, president Mokgweetsi Masisi, seems less inclined to honour his predecessor’s legacy. With rural sentiment in favour of lifting the hunting ban, Masisi has found a politically influential constituency and, consequently, lifted the ban in 2019. Since then, Botswana’s reputation as a sanctuary for elephants has been thrown into doubt, and, even though the government seems to be in denial, recent reports by Elephants Without Borders suggest that poaching is on the rise again.

Tragically for all the wrong reasons, Botswana is back in the headlines again. As if the policy changes by the Masisi government are not already a matter of grave concern, around 400 elephants have died a mysterious death since March, with mortalities having spiked in recent weeks. Even more troubling, the cause of the problem has still not been identified, though plenty of rumours are flying around. Perhaps the only glimmer of hope is that humans, for once, might not be to blame for the catastrophe that has befallen Botswana’s elephant population. Last year, anthrax poisoning was identified as the reason for the sudden demise of more than 100 elephants in the country. However, since the animals are dying a sudden death, and others appear disoriented and lethargic, scientists assume that the elephants suffer from a neurological condition. While poisoned soil and water wells cannot be entirely ruled out as the source of the problem, another natural cause of some sort is the more likely culprit.

Falling in love with giants

My first and thus far only rendezvous with a fully grown elephant was pretty much accidental. More than a decade ago, as I was still living and studying in Heidelberg, a close friend of mine came up with the idea to pay a visit to the local zoo. With my interest in the animal world close to zero back then, I wasn’t thrilled but didn’t want to spoil the party either, and reluctantly I agreed to play along. Our visit was specifically designed to cater for blind people, but if I had known in advance that meeting an elephant would turn out to be the highlight of our trip, I surely would have passed up on this one. I knew next to nothing about them, only vaguely remembering that they were supposed to be mighty, towering creatures but generally gentle and harmless. I was somewhat aware that they had once been hunted almost to extinction in some parts of Africa because of the ivory trade. Though I felt somewhat sorry for them, this was as far as my interest and sympathy went. What in god’s name had gotten into my friends to look forward to having a cuddle with a ‘monster’ was beyond me. While the others in my group seemed excited, I was terrified of what was coming my way, and hoped that I could watch events unfolding from the sidelines. Prior to the elephant’s arrival, his carer gave us a little presentation about how elephants usually behave, how they communicate with each other and how they socialise. Since he believed our elephant to be in a good mood, he finally brought him along. Now, it is one thing to stand just a few feet away from a giant, but what I had not at all bargained for is that the creature would have the audacity to take possession of me by incessantly scanning me with his trunk. Trepidation must have shown on my face, since our human guide did his best to reassure me, letting me know that the elephant just wants to make my acquaintance. To make the experience as pleasant as possible for the animal, we were asked to feed him apples. How many of them he took from me, I cannot say as I stopped counting in the process. It slowly dawned on me that my fears were entirely the result of profound ignorance on my part. While others in my group had their curiosity satisfied, my own quest to betterunderstand this intriguing species had just begun, and their plight has affected me deeply ever since.

Elephants are the most magnificent beings I have ever come across, and, with further human encroachment on their natural habitat, we may well lose them which would be an unparalleled tragedy. I can only hope that scientists quickly establish what lies behind the untimely demise of so many of them in the Okavango Delta. After all, Botswana has a reputation to defend.

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