Botswana says natural toxin could be behind elephant deaths

A dead elephant in Okavango Delta, Botswana, source: Reuters
A dead elephant in Okavango Delta, May 2020, Botswana, source: Reuters

Preliminary tests to explain the reason for hundreds of elephants that died in Botswana point to a naturally occurring toxin as a probable cause, Cyril Taolo, acting director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, told Reuters.

It was highly unlikely that an infectious disease was behind the shocking deaths of at least 281 elephants, Taolo added.

Officials had been struggling to establish the cause of death more than two months after the first carcasses were spotted in the Okavango Panhandle region. Initial investigations appeared to rule out common causes like poaching and anthrax.

“We have received more test results from other countries, including the United States, and so far, the results show that it’s highly unlikely that the cause could be an infectious pathogen,” Taolo said.

“Our main attention … is now on investigating broader environmental factors such as naturally produced toxins from bacteria that are found in the environment, such as water bodies.”

The government has sent samples from the dead elephants to laboratories in Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the United States for tests. Last week, it received results from bacterial detection and toxicology tests in Botswana, histopathology tests in South Africa, and bacterial detection and histopathology tests in Zimbabwe.

Taolo said toxicology results were expected from South Africa soon.

“It’s a game of elimination where we start testing the most common causes and then move on to the less common ones. We then have to verify and corroborate these results from different laboratory tests. We are hoping to provide a more concrete update tomorrow,” Taolo said.

The elephant deaths have concerned some conservationists, who fear deaths could spiral out of control if a cause cannot be established quickly.

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