Dead pachyderms in Botswana: is Corona to blame for elephant death?

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By Hedviga Nyarsik

They die quickly and in large numbers: hundreds of elephants have already died in Botswana. The pachyderms just seem to drop dead. Experts are puzzled and warn of a possible infectious disease.
The aerial photos from Botswana are disturbing: parched elephant carcasses lie at water holes or in the middle of the savannah – some of them on their bellies as if they had suddenly fallen dead. More than 300 animals have mysteriously died since May. Botswana is home to about a third of the elephant population on the African continent.

Experts speak of an “unprecedented disaster”. Authorities and animal rights activists are puzzled. Some animals have been observed to have wandered “weak, lethargic and emaciated”, the conservation organization Elephants Without Borders (EWB) wrote in a report to the government in Gaborone. “Some elephants were disoriented, had difficulty walking and were paralyzed.”

The cause of the mass extinction in the Okavango Delta is still unclear after three months. However, it cannot be ruled out that the phenomenon is related to the corona pandemic, the “Tagesspiegel” quotes the veterinarian and director of the British conservation organization National Park Rescue, Niall McCann.

“The way the elephants die – many just fall on their faces or walk in circles – suggests something that is attacking their nervous system.” That could be a virus – possibly even Sars-CoV-2. “Elephants are very sociable animals – if it were an infection, it could spread very quickly in the herd,” says the big game veterinarian Sybille Quandt.

Most experts, however, consider a connection with corona to be rather unlikely: a mostly harmless infection with the virus has so far been known primarily for certain carnivores such as cats and mink. In addition, no other wild animal species seems to be affected by the mass extinction, explains Heike Henderson from the conservation organization Future for Elephants. This also applies to animals that drink from the same water holes or scavengers like lions, hyenas or vultures that feed on the elephant carcasses.

Experts are in the dark

That’s why animal rights activists rule out cyanide poisoning, which is more common in the region. Again and again people take action against elephants because they penetrate settlements and destroy fields. Small farmers in particular poison or hunt the giant animals, which eat 200 kg of foliage every day and drink up to 150 liters of water. But shepherds also like to get rid of big cats like lions, leopards or hyenas who are targeting their herds of cattle or goats.

Experts are certain that a lack of food can not be the cause of the sudden death of hundreds of elephants due to the heavy rainfall recently. Just as little as poaching: the dead animals all still have their tusks.

The local animal protection organization Elephants Protection Society sees parallels to a similar mass extinction a year ago. Back then, an initially mysterious pathogen had struck the region, says the director of the organization, Oaitse Nawa. The cause at the time was soils that were contaminated with the anthrax pathogen (anthrax). This time, poisoning by anthrax was excluded with tests. Samples that have been sent to laboratories in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Canada should now clarify whether a new pathogen or a poison is to blame. But until the results are available, more elephants will probably die.

Authorities and animal rights activists are currently using helicopters and planes to locate dead animals. Henderson speaks of an exceptionally dramatic event: “Something that is otherwise only caused by an extreme, long-lasting drought.”

Another big problem is that the government of Botswana is not very transparent or cooperative, she criticizes. Aid offers would not be accepted by the government. “Why does the government deny the seriousness of the problem?” Asks Kenyan wildlife expert Paula Kahumbu on Twitter.

Animal rights activist Niall McCann suspects the government’s reluctance to attempt an image change. Critics had accused the previous government of weighting elephant lives more than human lives. “The incumbent government is keen to show the rural population that elephants’ lives should not be put ahead of human lives, especially during the corona crisis,” McCann told Channel 5.

However, he emphasized the importance of solving the mass extinction of elephants as soon as possible. “We still do not know if it is a poison or an illness. But if this is passed on to humans, it can lead to a public health crisis.” This could also have negative consequences for tourism, which is so important for the country, since many people only come to Botswana because of the elephants.

The country actually has a good reputation in terms of nature and animal protection. Last year, however, there was international outrage over the lifting of the ban on elephant hunting. While the number of elephants in many regions of Africa is declining, according to official figures, it has increased from around 50,000 in 1991 to a good 130,000 animals in the landlocked country.

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