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SA scientists share fears over mysterious deaths of elephants

Over the last few months, more than 350 elephants in the famed Okavango Delta have died.

This image provided on 3 July 2020 courtesy of the National Park Rescue charity shows the carcass of one of the many elephants which have died mysteriously in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Picture: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - South African scientists and conservationists say they fear the mysterious deaths of hundreds of elephants in Botswana could have broader implications for the animals’ population on the continent.

Over the last few months, more than 350 elephants in the famed Okavango Delta have died. The circumstances surrounding their deaths are unclear, but it initially sparked theories around natural toxins, starvation and even anthrax poisoning.

A research team which includes experts from the Kruger National Park, the University of Pretoria and Pakistan have pooled their expertise to understand the possible causes.

Botswana, which has one of the world’s largest elephant populations has lost nearly 400 elephant, within a few months. Photographs of the carcasses show that some animals dropped on their knees or face first as opposed to their sides, suggesting sudden death.

Professor Armanda Bastos, head of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria, said while there was still no conclusive information, a few possibilities could be ruled out.

“Malicious poisoning is unlikely, starvation is unlikely and poaching is unlikely as all of the elephants were found with their tusks intact.”

Bastos said without definitive answers, measures to prevent future mass deaths would be delayed.

“Our big worry is that if we have no idea what caused it, we will have no way of preparing for future eventualities.”

The Botswana government has since provided an update on the results of tests, in addition to ruling out anthrax, pesticides, encephalomyocarditis virus. Whilst the cause of the deaths remains unclear, a recent media statement from the Botswana authorities indicate that an infectious agent is unlikely and that naturally occurring toxins are being investigated.

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