Scientists warn that the mysterious elephant deaths have the potential to be a public health crisis, reiterating the damaging effect of humans on the ecosystem.
Rabat – Since May, conservationists have spotted more than 350 elephant carcasses across Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Scientists are expressing heightened concerns about the unprecedented number of mysterious deaths and the Botswana government’s slow response to test the remains of the animals.
“Yes, it is a conservation disaster — but it also has the potential to be a public health crisis,” Dr. Niall McCann, National Park Rescue Director of Conservation told the BBC.
Nobody knows what is causing the mass deaths, however, conservationists have tentatively ruled out poaching considering the animals’ ivory tusks have not been removed. Furthermore, no other animals have been found dead, making poisoning an unlikely cause.
Local witnesses report seeing some of the animals walk in circles prior to dying — indicating that the animals may be suffering from a neurological disease.
“This is a mass die-off on a level that hasn’t been seen in a very, very long time. Outside of drought, I don’t know of a die-off that has been this significant,” said McCann.
With lab results still weeks away, conservationists worry that the local elephant population is in grave danger. Decades of poaching and conflict have already left Africa’s elephant population vulnerable and declining.
Approximately one third of Africa’s elephants are found in Botswana, and according to McCann the country is “failing to protect its most valuable resource.”
“You see elephants as assets of the country. They are the diamonds wandering around the Okavango delta,” said McCann. The estimated 15,000 elephants roaming the delta make up 10% of the country’s total population and help to draw in a considerable amount of eco-tourism.
“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.”
Human impact and concern for public health
Some scientists are concerned that the elephant deaths may indicate another public health threat to humans, similar to COVID-19. As the world continues to struggle with the global pandemic, warnings persist regarding human impact on the ecosystem and its potential to foster deadly viruses.
Scientists suggest that there is a strong connection between the transmission of infection and biodiversity. Complex and diverse ecosystems reduce the chance of viruses spreading, while human behavior (i.e. pollution, habitat destruction, or exploitation of natural resources) causes vulnerability by increasing the opportunity for viruses to spread beyond their animal origins.
Human activity is largely contributing to the endangerment and extinction of species on earth. While the cause of Botswana’s mass elephant deaths remains unknown, the discovery of their deaths is sparking fears and mounting concerns over human impact.