Nerve agent fear as hundreds of elephants perish mysteriously in Botswana

The mysterious death of hundreds of elephants in Botswana has left experts alarmed that there could be a dangerous neurotoxin spreading through one of Africa’s largest conservationist areas.

Around 400 African elephants have died since April in the Okavango Delta, a wetland area in the northwest of the country often referred to as ‘Africa’s Last Eden.’

Powerful poaching syndicates from Zambia and South Africa regularly cross into Botswana to shoot the animals with high-calibre rifles before hacking their tusks off with axes.

But these deaths are different. Pictures show dozens of rotting calves and fully grown adult elephants studding grasslands and waterholes. Their tusks, which can be worth tens of thousands of pounds, have been left untouched.

“The elephants have no visible wounds. Before they die, we’ve seen them wander around confused, emaciated and in distress. Their legs often don’t work properly or are paralysed,” Dr Niall McCann, Director of conservation for National Park Rescue, a UK-based charity.

Some of the elephants have died so quickly they fell onto their front as if they had been shot in the head by hunters. - The Telegraph
Some of the elephants have died so quickly they fell onto their front as if they had been shot in the head by hunters. - The Telegraph

“They often die so quickly that they fall onto their chest and front legs, like they had been shot in the brain by a hunter.”

“The fact that some living elephants were seen to be losing their motor functions seems to indicate that this toxin, whatever it is, is affecting their nervous system,” Dr McCann added.

“The fact that there is a currently-unidentified nerve agent in an area so close to human habitation is very concerning, particularly at a time when the transfer of disease from animals to people is on everyone’s mind.”

According to a confidential report seen by The Telegraph, the carcasses are clustered within a few dozen kilometres of villages on the northern bank of the Okavango River, a key water supply for northern Botswana.

Botswana’s government says it is carrying out an investigation into the deaths and has ruled out poaching or poisoning by humans or anthrax.

However, experts say that Botswana’s government has been slow to react to the crisis, has been sitting on testing samples for months and not given permission to private actors to test samples abroad.

There are also suggestions that the watering wells could have been poisoned by locals carrying out reprisal attacks.

A four-year-old child was reportedly recently killed by a marauding elephant and experts say the area is a well known ‘hotspot’ for human-elephant conflict.

If the elephants were poisoned by humans, it would be one of the most striking examples yet of human-wildlife conflict in Africa’s nature reserves.

However, the picture is still blurred. When poachers and locals poison wells with cyanide, a deadly neurotoxin, in countries like Zimbabwe, many other animals like hyenas, vultures and lions die en masse, and so far there is little evidence of other animals dying like the elephants in the Okavango region, according to Dr Pieter Kait, Director of the UK-based charity LionAid.

Africa’s overall elephant population is declining due to poaching and rapid urbanisation. Botswana has bucked this trend extraordinarily. The southern Africa nation is home to almost a third of the continent’s elephants, and numbers have grown to 130,000 from 80,000 in the late 1990s, because of well-managed wildlife reserves.

But the elephant population is seen as a growing problem by many farmers, whose crops have been destroyed by roaming animals.

Last year, the country’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi, lifted a five-year ban on big game hunting. However, the hunting season failed to take off in April as the world went into lockdown because of the novel coronavirus.

For now, conservationists say they are desperately trying to keep the locations of the dead elephants secret so that the 800 or so tusks do not end up being a huge windfall for criminal gangs.