Officials Blame Bacteria for Elephant Deaths, Conservationists Still Have Questions

Image: Pixaby

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

Monday, Botswanan officials announced their findings following an investigation into the sudden and mysterious deaths of 356 elephants. 

The investigation found that neurotoxins caused by an algal bloom in a large rain puddle poisoned the animals. However, many conservationists remain skeptical, largely because the government has yet to release which organization conducted the investigation and claims that human involvement did not play a role in the deaths. According to officials, the elephants, who consume up to 40 gallons of water a day, most likely consumed a large amount of the neurotoxins that led to their deaths. 

Why This Matters: There are approximately 126,000 African elephants in Botswana, about a third of the entire African elephant population. While 356 out of 126,000 may not sound like a lot, it’s only 20 fewer elephants than poachers killed between 2017 and 2018. 

In Botswana, while conservationists have been largely successful at protecting wildlife, there have also been recent spikes in poaching and conflict between elephants and local communities. COVID-19 has also reduced eco-tourism in the region. In the US that was a benefit for many ecosystems, but in places like Botswana, it led to reduced funding for the protection of wildlife and a massive loss of jobs, many of them related to animal conservation. 

For nations that rely on tourism to fund conservation and stimulate their economy, losing hundreds of elephants in such a short period is a staggering loss. Elephant deaths have been increasing worldwide; one region in India is combatting illegal live wires responsible for electrocuting Asian elephants.


Threats for Elephants: As elephant populations lose habitats to agriculture, become more fragmented, and become denser, interactions with the local communities become more common and often more destructive. While many locals support conservation efforts, others retaliate violently against elephants that trample and destroy their farmland, leading to speculation by conservationists that these elephants may have been poisoned by a vengeful community. In June, when the deceased elephants were discovered, conservationists entertained many different theories, from simple starvation to accidental anthrax poisoning, which previously killed 100 hippos in Namibia

The conclusion by the government, however, was that an algae bloom, specifically Cyanobacteria, had produced neurotoxins in the water that the elephants drank from. 

Cyril Taolo, deputy director of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, credited environmental changes for the deaths, “There’s absolutely no reason to believe that there was human involvement in these mortalities,” he said, “this is not a phenomenon that was just seen now, it is something that happens quite a lot when there are these environmental changes.” Studies have shown a correlation between algae blooms and climate change. One study conducted in the United States by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that warming air and water, as well as increased rainfall, have made algae blooms more frequent, widespread, and longer. Anne Schechinger, EWG senior economic analyst explains, “the climate crisis is quickly accelerating what was already a dangerous, expensive problem.” 

Chris Thouless, head of research at Save the Elephants has more questions, however, wondering why there seemingly haven’t been deaths in other species in the region. Roy Bengis, a veterinary wildlife specialist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, says this may be explained by not only the large volume of water that elephants consume, but also by a common elephant behavior, swimming. For now, conservationists wait for more information, Dr. Bengis concluding, “I can’t say yea or nay with regards to whether this diagnosis is correct or incorrect, or possible or impossible.”


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