Another bright and warm day of July in Okavango Delta in Botswana. It was the time for Elephants Without Borders, a conservation organization to do its routine aerial surveys. It was all good at the beginning, but all in a sudden, everything became huge terror.
The aerial survey showed that elephants of all ages appeared to be dying. And the image they captured showed those elephants died in the most peculiar way. In addition to that, a number of living elephants also appeared to be weak and lethargic.
Botswanan officials immediately launched deep investigation to find out what happened to the elephants, but it was too strange to immediacy show some results. After a month of thorough investigation, experts begin to find some clues.
What actually happened to those elephants? Will it threaten our global elephant population? Here we present what researchers suggested to have happened.
Dancing Plague In Botswana?
In July 1518, a woman started to dance fervently in the street of Strasbourg, France without any clear reason. People around her noticed it but paid not much attention to her, because dancing wasn’t a crime nor some sign of insanity.
Little did they know, the woman was actually the first victim of dancing plague. A group of people, mostly young women, joined her dancing and as time went by more and more people joined the activity without any explanation why. Data said that it could be 400 people joined the dancing.
All the people joined danced for days without stopping to just take a sip of water nor eat, let alone resting their legs. A lot of the dancer died, mostly because of tiredness, and up until nowadays this phenomenon is still an unsolved mystery.
In July 2020, almost similar thing happened in Botswana. A group of elephants walk in circles, appeared weak, dizzy, and lethargic for some reason. After showing such signs, most of them just suddenly dropped dead, face first.
The similarities between the two phenomena mentioned above are that the victims didn’t appear to move in such peculiar way voluntarily. Both phenomena also resulted in death of some victims, and the reason why it happened is still unknown. So, is the bizarre thing happened to elephants in Botswana similar to middle-age dancing plague?
Hell In Botswana Elephant Sanctuary
Botswana is a landlocked country in southern Africa. This country is simply the sanctuary for elephants, having the world’s largest elephant population with around 130,000 individuals roaming freely. While Okavango Delta is the place where elephants usually ‘hang out’.
With that number of elephant population, unfortunately Botswana is also the ‘heaven’ for poachers who hunt for elephants’ tusks. Reports about poached elephants is just another daily news for people living in the country.
Up to 169 bodies were found at May, and another 187 were found at June. At first, authorities thought that it could be the work of poachers who poisoned the elephants or made them drunk to death before stealing the tusks.
In 2018, aerial survey done by Elephants Without Borders found 87 dead bodies around the area. Most of them had their tusks removed from their body. However, after examining the bodies of dead elephants, the tusks apparently stayed intact. It ruled out the possibility of poaching.
Another reason why it could not be poaching is because coronavirus. The initial hit of the virus lead to travel ban among countries all over the world, including Botswana. And in this case, it means there should have not possible for poachers from abroad to steal that many numbers of elephant tusk during the period.
With the elimination of poaching, authorities started to think that the cause should be something more natural, such as diseases or poisoning. They suspected anthrax to be the main cause, even though the suspicion was drawn shortly.
“Based on some of the preliminary results that we have received, we are looking at naturally-occurring toxins as the potential cause. To date we have not established the conclusion as to what is the cause of the mortality,” said Wildlife and Parks Department boss, Cyril Taolo to AFP.
Taolo said that there is a possibility that the elephant ‘dancing plague’ might be the result of water poisoning. Some bacteria living in water bodies can produce a kind of enzyme or compound that’s naturally poisonous to elephants.
“Our main attention is now on investigating broader environmental factors such as naturally produced toxins from bacteria that are found in the environment, such as water bodies,” he explained.
Just like how we are currently battling with time to find the vaccine for coronavirus, researchers working on this case are also battling to find the cause of Botswanan elephant death. The fear is, if it keeps going on too long without any clear results, the problem can spiral out of control.
“It’s a game of elimination where we start testing the most common causes and then move on to the less common ones. We then have to verify and corroborate these results from different laboratory tests. We are hoping to provide a more concrete update tomorrow,” said Taolo.
Prof Rudi van Aarde from the University of Pretoria’s Department of Zoology and Entomology is one of the researchers working on to figure out the cause of this phenomenon. Along with his team, he has produced a commentary published in African Journal of Wildlife Research.
In the commentary, they support the suspicion toward natural toxins, as elephant carcasses were found in main watercourse of Okavango Panhandle. When a sick elephant dies in the watercourse, there is big possibility that the disease killed it will be spread to other elephants drinking the water.
But definite answer is still necessary to solve the problem. We cannot make a vaccine if we don’t even know if the disease is created by virus or not. “Without definite answers around the cause of these deaths, it is not clear whether mitigation is necessary or possible in Botswana, and it will not be possible to prevent future mass deaths,” Prof Van Aarde said.