'It's a rare cause': Hundreds of mysterious elephant deaths baffles wildlife officials

·2-min read

Botswana wildlife officials investigating hundreds of unexplained elephant deaths have verified six more carcasses and say it is still not clear what is killing the animals about two months after the first bodies were spotted.

Officials told reporters near the Okavango Delta on Thursday (local time) they had now verified 281 carcasses and the deaths were concentrated in an area of 8000 square kilometres that is home to about 18,000 elephants.

Flying over the area in a helicopter, a Reuters reporter saw one carcass splattered in droppings from vultures, which had eaten some of the flesh, and red paint from officials marking verified carcasses.

About 350 elephants have been found dead in Botswana. Pictured is one of them.
One of the about 350 elephant carcasses that have been found dead for unknown reasons. Source: AAP

Hundreds of live elephants wandered nearby.

"We are not dealing with a common thing, it looks like it's a rare cause," Mmadi Reuben, principal veterinary officer at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, said, adding the death rate in the affected area was below 2 per cent.

"We cannot rule out anything at this stage, it could be a virus, vegetation, overnutrition after last year's drought... We have asked the community not to interact with the carcasses."

He said officials were expecting to receive test results this week on samples sent to South Africa and Canada.

Some campaign groups have criticised the government for acting too slowly to solve the mystery of the dying elephants, an accusation Dr Reuben has denied.

A dead elephant in the bush in Botswana.
A dead elephant lies in the bush in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Source: AAP
A photo shows a dead elephant next to lake in Botswana.
Botswana is investigating a staggeringly high number of elephant carcasses. Source: AAP

Although the number of deaths so far represents a fraction of the estimated 130,000 elephants in Botswana, there are fears more could die if authorities cannot establish the cause soon.

Wave Kashweka, a senior veterinary officer in Botswana's North-West district, said officials had found elephants which appeared to have died recently, adding aerial surveys would try to find more carcasses.

In their initial inquiries, authorities ruled out poaching and anthrax among possible causes.

Cyril Taolo, acting director of the wildlife department, said the government had contacted neighbours Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Zambia, but they had not seen similar elephant deaths.

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