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First clues emerge in elephant death mystery

THALEFANG CHARLES MBONGENI MGUNI
Answers sought: The Seronga community is equally puzzled by the deaths. Government expects the last test results by July 24 PICS:THALEFANG CHARLES
Post-mortems done by local veterinarians and laboratories show ‘no definitive cause’ behind the deaths of at least 281 elephants in the country’s northwest, only deepening the mystery. Information passed to Mmegi Staff Writers, THALEFANG CHARLES and MBONGENI MGUNI however does reveal some surprising findings

Local post mortems into elephant fatalities in the northwest showed no definitive cause of deaths, but a “high parasitic” burden was found throughout the gut of one carcass, an Environmental ministry report passed to Mmegi shows.

Local veterinarians and the National Veterinary Laboratory conducted postmortems and tests on several samples from deceased elephants and the results only deepened the mystery, requiring the input of international biologists and labs.

“Following the initial investigation by the team, a list of potential diseases which could cause such extensive mortality was generated,” the report reads.

“This list was used by the National Veterinary Laboratory to eliminate potential causes as part of the diagnostic plan.

“Furthermore, the team being aware that such an event might signal occurrences of novel disease causing micro-organisms, also identified a molecular biology research laboratory to assist in identification of such novel organisms.”

The report adds that the national laboratory ruled out anthrax and further tests also eliminated other bacterial diseases.

Since May, hundreds of elephant carcasses have been found in villages in the eastern Okavango.

While local environmental, biological and law enforcement officials have been conducting investigations and testing of the carcasses to determine the cause of death, international outrage has been growing from animal rights lobbyists who have accused Botswana of dragging her feet in probing the matter. The Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism ministry has stepped up its efforts, engaging local NGOs, international laboratories and journalists in a multipronged attempt to manage the backlash and get to the bottom of the fatalities.

On Wednesday, the ministry said results from samples sent to South Africa, the United Kingdom and the USA were expected between July 20 and July 24. Results on bacterial detection tests and histopathology (tests on tissues) had already been received from Zimbabwe, but these would only be released after being compared to the results from labs in other countries.

While the word “sample” is used generally for the specimens in the labs, Mmegi is informed the tests involve a wide array of samples from fecal, blood soil samples, water, ribs, mouth washes, gut contents, body fluids and others.

Mmegi can also reveal that a local NGO has connected the Ministry to the world famous Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US. “They will be providing the sampling kits and guidance on sampling techniques for different diseases,” reads the report.

The CDC is considered the world’s foremost authority on public health research, boasting authoritative experts on environmental health

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as well.

While the test results are awaited, researchers on the ground have noted that the elephant fatalities seem to be concentrated “in the proximity of water pans,” around the area south of Eretsha, Gudigwa and Gunutsoga villages.

“Animals observed in this area were dying in the floodplains and islands within the Delta.

“Accessibility to these areas is either by air or use of an airboat which can traverse the floodplains effectively.

“Another section of the affected area is a sandy and thick mophane/terminalia woodlands which cannot be accessed by a vehicle.

“Aerial support in the form of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft are used to efficiently survey the area,” the report notes. On the ground, meanwhile, communities are equally puzzled by the deaths.

Kgosi Maeze Maeze of Seronga told Mmegi the deaths were a novel affair.

“As far back as I can remember we have never experienced anything like this in our area,” he said in an interview during a tour sponsored by the ministry last week. “This is the very first time we see only certain kind of species dying in so large numbers and others not being affected.”

Kgosi Maeze said the area actually had low numbers of elephants in previous years. “They arrived here after running away from conflict areas where they were poached and hunted.  “Ever since they came here in large numbers, they never died like this.” The fact that deaths are occurring near water pans has again raised the possibility of a human element to the deaths. Local wildlife authorities have not discounted poisoning, and although scavengers which feed on carcasses are not dying, researchers say there are types of poisons that may not necessarily be passed on.

The involvement of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security, Criminal Investigation Department and other law enforcement officials has also raised fears that government believes a ‘human hand’ may be involved in the deaths.

As reported by Mmegi recently, a team of law enforcement officials spent days in the area interviewing villagers.

Ministry officials said the law enforcement officials were conducting a forensic probe.

At ground level, communities have washed their hands of involvement.

“We too ask ourselves whether it could be poison but it is puzzling because our livestock, cattle and goats, graze and drink in there yet they are not dying,” said Kgosi Maeze.

The theories in the area are running wild.

“Ga se corona tota,” says Thopho Rethio, a villager at Seronga.

Until the results are announced, the mystery remains.



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