UPDATE (3 August 2020): Although the cause of death of hundreds of elephants in Botswana remains inconclusive, the Botswana government have ruled out infectious disease and anthrax poisoning and suspect a natural toxin is behind the mysterious die-off. "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," Cyril Taolo, acting director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, told Reuters. "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."

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UPDATE (10 July 2020):  In a press conference held earlier today (10 July), officials announced that they have received test results from samples taken from carcasses in northern Botswana, but are awaiting further results before they can confirm the cause of the elephant deaths (sparking increased frustration and speculation from the public).

According to the government, initial test results have ruled out known diseases like natural anthrax poisoning that typically lead to mass die-offs, signalling that this may be a new pathogen. To date, officials have confirmed the deaths of 281 animals, although some independent estimates suggest the figures are closer to 400.

Further announcements are expected next week following the completion of laboratory tests in South Africa.


UPDATE (3 July 2020): The BBC has reported that three laboratories in Canada, South Africa and Zimbabwe have been asked to "process the samples taken from the dead elephants". The government are awaiting the test results.


In what is being described as a "conservation disaster", at least 350 elephants have died in northern Botswana over the last two months. Officials are yet to decipher the cause of the mass die-off raising concern amongst conservationists.

Around 70% of the elephant deaths were recorded near waterholes.

"Outside of drought, I don’t know of a die-off that has been this significant," Dr Niall McCann, director of conservation at charity organisation National Park Rescue, told The Guardian.

Reports of unexplained elephant deaths in Botswana first surfaced in early May when 13 carcasses were spotted near two villages in the northwest of the country. This number has been steadily climbing and by some estimates may now be closer to 400. Sources told the Guardian that approximately 70% of the recent deaths have occurred near waterholes.

The carcasses were found with their tusks intact suggesting that ivory poachers were not to blame for the deaths. Poisoning seems a more likely cause, however, the evidence doesn’t quite add up. "It is only elephants that are dying and nothing else," says Dr McCann. "If it was cyanide used by poachers, you would expect to see other deaths."

Natural anthrax poisoning, the cause-of-death of over 100 Botswana elephant last year, has also been ruled out. It is possible, however, that a toxin of some kind may be involved in the latest die-off. Some elephants were seen by local witnesses walking around in circles, while the carcasses of others show that the animals fell suddenly onto their faces upon death. These signs could point to something attacking the elephants’ neurological systems, says McCann, although he cannot be certain until tests have been carried out.

One of the 350-plus elephants that recently died from unknown causes.

"When we’ve got a mass die-off of elephants near human habitation at a time when wildlife disease is very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it seems extraordinary that the government has not sent the samples to a reputable lab," he said.

The Botswana government has come under fire from conservationists who argue that officials did not act swiftly enough in response to the initial deaths. Writing in the Journal of African Elephants, LionAid Director Dr Pieter Kat argues that the "cause of death should have been a piece of cake to decipher, especially since fresh carcasses were available and samples were collected."

Botswana’s wildlife officials have blamed the hold-up in sample testing on COVID-19 restrictions, which they argue played a role in delaying the transport of the samples to a laboratory. Test results are expected to arrive "over the next couple of weeks or so," Dr Cyril Taolo, acting director for Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks, explained to The Guardian.

It is likely that more elephants will perish in the interim. Local reports found many live elephants in a weakened or emaciated state suggesting that they may also be suffering from whatever affliction is killing elephants in the area.

"There is real concern regarding the delay in getting the samples to an accredited laboratory for testing in order to identify the problem – and then take measures to mitigate it," Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, told The Guardian.

"The lack of urgency is of real concern and does not reflect the actions of a responsible custodian. There have been repeated offers of help from private stakeholders to facilitate urgent testing which appear to have fallen on deaf ears … and the increasing numbers are, frankly, shocking."

The area in which the elephants were found is home to 10% of Botswana's pachyderm population.

Botswana is home to at least 130,000 elephants – a third of Africa’s total population. A rise in poaching reported last year raised concerns for a country that relies on ecotourism for 10-12% of its GDP. Elephants are serious business in Bots and, although many local residents have feelings of animosity towards the giants that are known to destroy crops and put people’s lives at risk, they play a big part in the nation’s tourism revenue and reputation.

When writing about the recent unexplained deaths, Dr Kat argues that: "Botswana is a major destination for wildlife tourists, and this [the recent die-off] cannot be shuffled conveniently under a carpet woven of complacency and excuses."

Top header image: Brittany H., Flickr