Remember the 330 Dead Elephants in Botswana? Toxic Algae Is the Answer

A while ago, we found out that about the mysteriously deceased 300 elephants across Botswana’s Okavango Delta. For months the case that happened between late April and June remained unsolved.

It was really strange and people couldn’t find any visible evidence of the cause. Many had speculated, probably thinking “What the heck happened?” because people couldn’t find noticeable signs of poachers or any foul play.

Well, officials have stated that the culprit was nature: toxic blue-green algae that had polluted those poor elephants’ drinking water.

Blue-green algae

I usually remember good things when it comes to blue-green colors aka cyan. Sadly, in reality they’re not always good, like the algae. Actually, it’s not really algae, but rather a type of cyanobacteria.

According to Cyril Taolo, Botswana’s acting director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, the bacteria took hold in seasonal pools of water used by elephants.

Because of this pretty-colored algae, elephants of all ages and both sexes died. Officials found their bodies near watering holes. Once the ponds dried up, the devastating deaths stopped along.

Toxic cyanobacteria, according to Map Ives who has worked on elephant conservation projects in Botswana, seemed like a probable explanation. Water levels in Okavango Delta have been rising, and it might have brought the algae (that exists deeper in the soil) to the surface.

Different from bacteria that wild animals ingest every day, cyanobacteria can kill mammals in sufficiently high doses. It works by interfering with the nervous system’s ability to send signals throughout the body.

The Guardian reports that elephants that died in Botswana were seen walking in circles before dying all of the sudden. Some collapsed onto their faces. Poor, poor animals.

Taolo said in a statement, “A monitoring plan of seasonal water-pans on a regular basis to track such future occurrences will be instituted immediately and will also include capacity building to monitor and test for toxins produced … by cyanobacteria.”

Foul play still a possibility

Water with cyanobacteria present. Photo by Christian Fischer Wikimedia Commons

Large population is a good thing for us who are rooting for them and also conservationists. But that’s not always the case for people of Botswana. In parts of this country, there have been increased tensions between elephants and humans. The pachyderms are often blamed for destroying crops.

Suspicion of foul play thickens when no other species of wildlife were dead because of the toxic algal blooms. Hyenas and vultures which feasted on the elephants’ corpses showed no ill effects whatsoever.

In a statement, Taolo said, “There is absolutely no reason to believe there was human involvement in these mortalities.” That makes sense because those elephants didn’t lose their tusks, which was a surprise to me that poachers didn’t take an advantage of this.

However, AP (Associated Press) stated that Taolo didn’t give any explanation as to why only elephants were affected. That could complicate the narrative that human involvement can be ruled out.

Biologist who has studied elephants for 40 years Keith Lindsay stated that the government’s analysis was not satisfactory. He thought that the elephants in the Okavango were targets.

Lindsay suggested that the wildlife ministry’s tests failed to rule out neurotoxins that may be available to farmers and thus did not rule out foul play. The biologist called on the government to release the full test results to the public.

There’s been no update so far about this case. I don’t know what’s going on, but I do hope that African elephants can live their lives peacefully a lot more.

Enough about the sadness, now. Let’s move on to some Asian elephants that will be free of circus shackles.

Asian elephants that will “roam free”

White Oak Conservation Center in Florida is going to welcome around 30 Asian elephants next year. The elephants were ex-performers of Ringling Bors. And Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Feld Entertainment, which owns the circuses, made a commitment to phase out elephant performances back in 2015. The company officially retired the last of their elephants in 2016.

Now, the elephants weren’t performing in circuses anymore, and they’ve lived at the Ringling Bros.’ 80-hectare (200-acre) Center for Elephant Conservation. But, in 2016 Reuters reported that the center chained the elephants at night to prevent them from stealing each other’s food.

Last September, the White Oak Conservation Center announced the purchase of 35 retired circus elephants. Some of the pachyderms can’t go to the wildlife refuge because of age (one’s 74 years old) or medical conditions (blindness).

White Oak’s enclosure is around a thousand hectares of wetlands, meadows, and woods. That’ll provide a variety of landscapes that the elephants can choose freely.

Also, the enclosure will have 11 watering holes, large enough for the elephants. There are also three barns with veterinary equipment to meet their needs.

“It is a chance for us to let them return to just being elephants in a situation that is as close to the wild as we can make,” said Michelle Gadd, who leads global conservation efforts for Walter Conservation.

Circus retirees

African elephant performing in a circus. Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg

Eight males and 26 females are able to move to the White Oak. There are challenges to such transition. The elephants have lived their lives in near isolation and they’ve never searched or found their own food.

Gadd said, “Our elephant whisperer Nick [Newby], who’s in charge of the elephant program for us, has been spending his time getting to know these elephants and their social preferences, limitations and physical ailments for the past two years.”

“It’s to see who tolerates each other, who really likes each other, who stays together and gets along well,” added Gadd.

Newby found a group of six elephants ranging between 10 and 55 years old. All of them get along and are able to move together. White Oak plans to keep family groups whenever possible, because elephants are very family-oriented.

No return to the wild

I wrote “roam free” because these elephants can’t actually roam free in their natural habitat (India and Southeast Asia). They’ve lived their whole lives in captivity, which makes it super hard to release them.

But, president of the Performing Animal Welfare Society Ed Stewart said that transitioning these big animals to White Oak is a good step. He said, “It looks like it’s going to be very good captive welfare, some of the best captive welfare that you can have.”

Not all hope is lost, though, because White Oak staff wish to return any elephants born at the center back to the wild. And even if all the elephants remain at the center, it’s a “really important experiment about how well elephants can relearn wild behaviors,” as Gadd said.

 

Sources

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/mystery-330-dead-elephants-botswana-solved-180975884/https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/retired-circus-elephants-move-2500-acre-wildlife-refuge-next-year-180975921/

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