The official number of deaths is 330, and the deaths take place between the end of April and June. Botswana has the world’s largest population of elephants, about 130,000 in total. Their growing numbers have been hailed by conservationists and Botswana has become a mecca for tourists who want to witness and photograph wildlife.
Popular sentiments in parts of the country have turned against elephants, as many blame them for destroying farmland. Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, fought and won re ̵
“There is absolutely no reason to believe that there was human involvement in these deaths,” Cyril Taolo, deputy head of Botswana’s wildlife ministry, told a news conference in the capital Gaborone on Monday.
The claim was later complicated during the conference by Mmadi Reuben, the ministry’s chief veterinarian, who said that while cyanobacteria had been identified as the culprit, the deaths remained mysterious, especially the question of why only elephants died when the toxin was in available water to other animals.
“We still have many questions to answer, such as why only the elephants and why only that area. We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating, he said.
Conservatives working in Botswana have also become bitterly divided over the issue of human-elephant conflict. Some argue that the government uses, and even promotes, anti-elephant sentiment as a populist political tool, while others see the government as trying to balance conservation and human needs.
Keith Lindsay, an elephant biologist with 40 years of experience, including five in the Ministry of Wildlife under Masisi’s predecessor, said he still believed the Okavango elephants had been “targeted” and claimed that the tests did not rule out other neurotoxins available to farmers. He also called on the government to release the full test results to the public.
The samples were also tested for cyanide, pesticides and anthrax at laboratories in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Canada and the United States. Poaching was ruled out early because the valuable pastures of the dead elephants were left untouched.
Another conservationist with decades of experience in Botswana, Map Ives, said the results were likely, especially given rising water levels in recent years in Okavango, which could lead to cyanobacteria rising from lower soil levels to the surface.
More than 20 elephants died in neighboring Zimbabwe last month under similar circumstances. Zimbabwe and Botswana have seen growing elephant populations while declining in almost all other African countries.
The death ended at the end of June, which coincided with the dehydration of water basins where contamination of cyanobacteria would have taken place.
Bearak reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.