You see a herd of elephants lazily taking a stroll near a lake in the middle of a dense forest on a sunny afternoon. Their calves playfully throw water at each other while the elders peacefully sip water from the lake. Suddenly you notice something odd. The elephants start walking in circles, their eyes dizzy, their tusks still, and all of a sudden, they drop dead! Some of them drop face-first into . What a devastating sight it would be, right? Sadly, this is not a story from a book, but a real incident that happened in the Okavango Delta in the African country of Botswana. More than 300 African elephants have mysteriously died since April 2020 in Botswana, leaving experts both baffled and alarmed. Although initially poachers were blamed as they often crossed Botswana to kill these animals for ivory, the elephants’ intact tusks quickly ruled that possibility out. So what could have caused these gentle giants to drop dead just like that?
Botswana – often described as the ‘Gem of Africa’ for being the largest producer of diamonds, has a strong history of wildlife conservation. The land-locked country hosts a large variety of some of the rarest species, animals, and birds found in this world. And among them are the African bush elephants (also known as savanna elephants.) They are the largest land animals on Earth, their large ears and other features distinguishing them from their Asian cousins. Their home is mostly the Chobe National Park where 1,30,000 of them reside, which makes it almost a third of the entire continent’s elephant population. These elephants are dependent on roots, grasses, fruit, and bark of trees and hence limit their movements within the remote eastern and southern parts of Africa. But the rapid rise in death tolls of these mammals has forced the surviving ones to flee from the area.
Their bizarre manner of death suggests to the experts that it’s unlikely to blame the ongoing pandemic or any other afflicting diseases. Instead, the nature of these deaths is entirely new. Markus Hofmeyr, a wildlife veterinarian and former head of veterinary services at Kruger National Park, had said, “From a population perspective this is not serious, even though many elephants have died. It is, however, important that there is a diagnosis made to make sure no foul play is at hand—that would be a problem for the population if it is not dealt with.”
According to veterinarians and wildlife experts, possible causes of their mysterious deaths could be due to the ingestion of toxic bacteria in water, anthrax poisoning, poisoning by humans, viral infection from rodents, or maybe due to a pathogenic microbe. Even environmental factors such as late heavy rain and extended drought seasons might also play a part.
A recent report released by the Botswana government stated that more than half of the deaths in Botswana happened near the waterholes. After carrying out a series of laboratory tests on the carcasses, soil, and water samples, the experts claimed the presence of microscopic organisms called cyanobacteria – a toxic bacteria which can occur naturally in standing water and sometimes grow into large blooms known as blue-green algae. According to the Principal Veterinary Officer of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Mr Mmadi Reuben, surprisingly, the deaths “stopped towards the end of June 2020, coinciding with the drying of water pans”.
However, several questions remain unanswered. Such as why only the elephants were infected by the cyanobacteria and not any other animals or birds and why the presence of toxic water was high only in that area? “We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating. For instance, elephants have strong olfactory receptors that enable them to drink hundreds of litres of water a day, potentially exposing them to more toxins than other species,” says Reuben.
However, Dr Niall McCann, of the UK-based charity National Park Rescue, is skeptical. He said, “Just because cyanobacteria were found in the water, that does not prove that the elephants died from exposure to these toxins.”
Some scientists, including Dr McCann, suspect that the climate crisis might have played an intensive role in such a mass death event.
According to scientists, not all cyanobacteria are toxic but some varieties can be dangerous to humans and animals. Off late, these toxic varieties are growing more frequently with the rapid change in climate and global warming. The sudden burst of heavy rain in Botswana after months of the dry season might have set the stage for the cyanobacteria to grow rapidly in water pans or waterholes.
Scientists are keen to solve the mystery to help mitigate future deaths and prevent it from possibly spilling into the human population. As Dr McCann said, “New emerging infectious diseases are happening all the time and the more we look into epidemiology the more we discover we don’t know.”
What do you think the environmentalists should do next to prevent such disaster? Tel us in the comments below.
Books are Tanaya Goswami’s first love and cheesecakes come a close second. Talking about movies, music, calligraphy, politics, and Elon Musk will get you listed under the friends’ section of her diary. Ever since moving on from her job as an English lecturer, she spends her time at BYJU’S crafting stories filled with emotion and sprinkled with sarcasm. Outside of work, she’s either learning something new (French, most recently!) or is curled up with a book and a cup of coffee. She firmly believes that discovering what you don’t know is the key to knowledge and is constantly working towards improving herself. Drop in a line at [email protected] if you liked her stories, have something nice to say, or if you have compelling ideas to share!
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