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The deaths of more than 300 elephants in Botswana have been blamed on toxins made by microscopic algae.
Wildlife officials said 330 of the creatures died after ingesting cyanobacteria, which can occur naturally in standing water, such as that found in watering holes.
The mass death puzzled scientists initially, with carcasses found across the country’s Okavango Delta between May and June.
Hundreds of dead elephants were found in Botswana. Credit: Shutterstock
Some feared poachers may be responsible for the deaths, but the nation’s Deputy Director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Cyril Taolo, ruled out poaching at a press conference on Monday (21 September), citing the results of carcass, soil and water tests, as well as the fact the dead elephants still had their trunks.
He said: “I don’t think anybody can ever say never, but in this instance, the available evidence is showing that this was a natural occurrence.”
However, the explanation that algae was to blame has been met with scepticism among some conservationists.
Keith Lindsay, a conservation biologist whose research focuses on elephants, told CNN: “If it’s in waterholes or was in waterholes, why was it only elephants that were affected?
“The one thing elephants do that other species don’t is they go and seek crops in farmers’ fields. If farmers put out poison, elephants of all ages would get that toxin and then they would go back to their waterholes.
“That is at least, if not more likely than this cyanobacteria as cause of death.”
Dr Niall McCann, director of conservation at UK-based charity National Park Rescue, added that the detection of cyanobacteria does not equate to proof that it was the cause of death.
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According to The Guardian, he said: “I hope that what the government has said is true because it rules out some of the more sinister things.
“Just because cyanobacteria were found in the water that does not prove that the elephants died from exposure to those toxins. Without good samples from dead elephants, all hypotheses are just that: hypotheses.”
Some conservationists aren't convinced by the explanation. Credit: Botswana Safari News
The Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ Principal Veterinary Officer, Mmadi Reuben, acknowledged that much of the mystery surrounding the mass death remained unsolved.
He said: “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.”
Botswana is home to 130,000 African elephants, which are classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.
Scientists fear climate change could cause deadly toxic blooms to become increasingly frequent, as they are more likely to occur in warm water.