The mysterious death of 330 elephants in May and June in Botswana is the result of cyanobacteria, according to the Botswana government.
“That’d be nuts if it turned out there was an exclusive elephanticidal” caused by cyanobacteria, according to Chicago bacteriologist, Dr. Peter Sullivan who specializes in cyanobacteria. “My guess is it’s something behavioral amongst the animals.”
The Botswana government, however, did qualify their finding. Principal veterinary officer, Mmadi Reuben, added that “we have many questions still to be answered such as why the elephants only and why that area only. We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating.”
Sullivan explains that cyanobacteria are common and widespread, especially in the algae blooms that were unusually prolific this year in Botswana.
The government has ruled out anything criminal such as poaching.
At first I suspected something fishy going on. As explained in earlier blogs, I never thought this was a poaching event and I will be highlighting those NGO’s in elephant conservation that tried to use this event as such as another example as to why you shouldn’t donate to them.
The government in power won the last elections in part because of an “elephant plank” if you will in their election platform. It was a reasonable statement regarding the growing hazards elephant cause Botswana’s developing population. It led to unreasonable debate that forced some politicians to insist on culling (which may be needed, but not after unreasonable debate).
When the government went all-in to this elephant slaughter it seemed to intentionally botch several of the first tests. Then, it gave deadlines for subsequent information and test results that it widely missed. I wondered if they were trying to cover up something.
I don’t think that any longer. The slaughter came and went pretty quickly. Any poison capable of killing 330 elephants would linger for a longer time, including as Dr. Sullivan pointed out, a completely unlikely cyanotoxin that uniquely effected elephants.
It’s very possible that cyanobacteria have a role in the deaths, but there’s something else. It’s hard to postulate a behavior that is suicidal, although we absolutely have other examples of large animals allowing themselves to be summarily killed, particularly in stressed environments which Botswana’s has been.
Consider beached whales and dolphins, and less frequently, other sea mammals. Now that this remarkably unexplained behavior by sea creatures, mostly larger ones, has been replicated by a large mammal on land, perhaps it’s time to consider the similarities.