Elephant conservationist Niall McCann weighs in on the mystery of why hundreds of our African elephants have been dying, in Botswana* as neighboring countries report no elephant deaths. Learn more from McCann’s recent interview with The World, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
*primarily in the Okavango Delta and other northern parts of the country.
Conservationist Niall McCann: (in answer to newscaster’s question, missing from this clip) “No, this is essentially unprecedented. So we’ve we’ve seen larger die-offs and this happen in times of droughts where prolonged lack of water and food leads to death, potentially for thousands of elephants back in Kenya in the 1970s. But in terms of a single event, essentially in the blinking of an eye, over a very short period of time killing this number, I cannot think of a precedent.”
Australian Broadcasting Corporation newscaster: “What do you think is happening?”
NM: “It is really hard to say until we get the results back but there are three main possibilities.
Firstly, that this is a pathogen, a disease that is solely attacking the elephants and is not touching any any of the other animals nearby. And that is very likely.
Secondly, that it is a naturally occurring toxin of some form, something like anthrax or (unintelligible) bacteria. But if that were the case I would expect to be seeing other animals dying as well. So, I suspect that probably is not the case.
And then the third possibility is that this is foul play, it is done by people. We know they have not been shot or speared but some poisons do not have secondary effects on other scavengers. So, it could well be a poison as well.”
ABC: “And so if that had been the case, a deliberate poisoning then you would have expected, potentially, of them to go in and try and cut out the ivory if it was, uh, a poaching effort of some sort”
NM: “That is a possibility. But the longer you leave the elephants after they have died the easier it is to get the ivory. For the first two to three weeks you have to go in with a chainsaw or a very large ax and literally hack it out of their face. But after decompo… decomposition has started to take place you can walk in and just slide them (elephant tusks) out more or less.
And given that they have killed such an enormous number, there is a huge value of ivory just lying around there. So I still would not rule out poaching.”
ABC: “Yeah. Some of the images that we have seen, uh, show the elephants very disoriented before they die. So. what would that suggest to you?”
NM: “Well that suggests to me that whatever this is, a pathogen, toxin or poison, is affecting their (the elephants’) central nervous system in some way. So they are losing their motor function. Some of them seem to be dying very quickly, dropping onto their fronts as if they have just taken a brain shot. Whereas others, you are right, are walking around confused or limping, dragging their back legs, walking in circles. Whatever this is it is having a massive effect on their nervous system.”
ABC: “Eh, tell us a little bit about, you know, we know elephants are such herd animals… What impact would it have on the surviving elephants?”
NM: “Well, I think… I am really glad you brought this up because very few other people have, and I think we cannot forget the fact that elephants are incredibly intelligent, incredibly sociable, very, very emotional. They have strong family bonds. Their brain is four times the size as ours. They cry salt tears and they mourn for their dead.
So, the elephants that are surviving in this region, which has about fifteen to sixteen thousand in total, must be terrified and absolutely distraught. And the trauma of what is happening to their friends and their family around them could last for generations.”
ABC: “That is just horrible to think about. And, so..so, in terms of their longer term impact, um, what does… might there be on the elephant population?”
NM: “Well, so, what we have seen before when elephant populations are… subjected to multiple traumas is that they become more aggressive. So, there is a genuine worry that if this population (of elephants) is being really damaged then psychologically they will be affected, more aggressive, more likely to come into conflict with local people. And who else… who else knows what the impacts are because we do not have any good psychology when it comes to elephants.”
ABC: “Yeah. Extraordinary. Well, we will watch with interest as we see the results come out. So good to talking… Thank you so much.”
NM: “Thanks for having me, Beth. Thank you.”
Transcribed from “Investigating the deaths of hundreds of elephants in Botswana” (WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES shown in video) ABC NEWS , “an Australian public broadcast service” not to be confused with ABC (American Broadcasting Company)