13 July 2020

A Troubling Site: Mass Death of Botswanan Elephant Population

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This is part of a student blog series as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Disease Ecology Class that our own Shane M Hanlon is currently teaching. Find out more about the series and read all the posts here!  

By Libby Pinto

Elephant carcass in the Okavango Delta. Photo by Roger Borgelid for Mongabay.

Since early March, there has been mass death among the elephant population in Botswana. The cause? We don’t know. The Botswanan government has ruled out three causes: poison, poaching, and anthrax. Yet, there has been significant question in the government’s handling of elephant mortality. Scientists continue to suspect anthrax and have repeatedly advocated for more frequent testing. When researchers offer aid into this mysterious mass causality, 400 deaths and rising, the authorities have denied it. The rejection of help can be accredited to Mokgweetsi Masisi’s attitude towards elephants in the country. Since he came to power in 2018, he has dissolved bans on hunting the 135,000 elephants located in the country. This has caused suspicion that the elephant’s death may be due to poison or poaching. However, there has been no removal of tusks or other elements from the elephant carcasses. Because of this, conservationists have called tests for a likely culprit: anthrax or another disease. 

Anthrax is naturally found in the soil of many African countries, including Botswana, and can be contracted by humans and grazing animals like cow, sheep, and goat. Bacillus anthracis is a rod-shaped gram positive bacteria that causes anthrax.. The discovery of anthrax can not be pinpointed, but there are indications that individuals were aware of the disease as far back as 700 BC in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The first clinical indication of anthrax was given in 1762. In the 1800s, the bacteria gave many scientific insights into biological and bacterial functions. Of these, one of the most famous are the series of experiments by Robert Koch that aided in his formation of the Koch Postulates. These experiments were not all beneficial. Nevertheless, anthrax is a deadly disease that has been linked to numerous animal epidemics including the recent deaths of elephants in Botswana. 

Urgent action is needed in order to combat this puzzling elephant death. In order to determine the cause, there needs to be testing. The government blames COVID-19 for the lack of testing, but questions have been raised due to the government’s preference in elephant poaching. Testing is especially needed because if it is anthrax or a new disease, elephants can easily spread it because of their tendency to travel large distances. Mark Hiley, a director at the National Park Rescue states “Theoretically, anthrax could be responsible. It is also possible that a pathogen has emerged and is virulent in the high-density elephant population in that area”. Altogether, advanced testing should be conducted in order to prevent the extinction of an already endangered species.