Cyanobacteria were behind the mysterious deaths of around 300 elephants in Botswana in the middle of this year, the government said on Monday.
The cause of death of the pachyderms was determined after months of scientific testing commissioned by the government of this southern African nation, famous for being home to the world’s largest elephant colony.
Cyanobacteria are a type of bacteria that have the ability to photosynthesize. They thrive in water and are able to produce toxins that poison terrestrial and marine wildlife and cause disturbance in humans. The number of elephants killed by cyanobacteria was around 330, Cyril Taolo, deputy director of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, told a televised press conference on Monday. Despite the clarification of the cause of the sudden and massive deaths, which have alarmed both the Government of Botswana and conservationists, there are still many questions to be resolved.
“We still have many questions to answer, including why only the elephant species was affected, why in the affected area and what may have triggered all of these changes that we have seen in the area. We have several hypotheses that we are investigating, ”Mmadi Reuben, chief veterinarian of the department, said at the press conference. This expert also said that it was proven that the deaths had ended when the water reservoirs in the affected region, around the city of Seronga (north), dried up. “From now on, we will monitor the situation and define procedures to prevent further fatalities in the coming season,” said Mmadi Reuben.
Botswana’s elephant death alarm was sounded in early May, when the bodies of several elephants were found near the Okavango Delta, whose cause of death experts could not guess at first. Further exploration led to the discovery of around 300 pachyderms dead under similar conditions, with signs of sudden neurological damage. No other species were affected, not even scavengers that allegedly ate dead elephants, such as hyenas or vultures. “It’s very, very strange, especially since it’s just the elephants,” said Niall McCann, director of conservation at British National Park Rescue, one of the organizations studying the problem.
The event also took place amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a factor that has complicated investigations due to traffic restrictions imposed to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.
The pandemic has also delayed the completion of scientific tests, as Botswana has had to send samples to laboratories in other countries.
Botswana, with a colony of around 125,000 pachyderms, has the largest number of elephants in the world.
Of those, 10% are in the area affected by this outbreak, the Okavango Delta, well known internationally for its luxury safari tourism.