Are elephants in Botswana dying from a naturally occurring pathogen?

The world is waiting for the test results from the mystery die off of 281 elephants in Botswana. The Botswana Government announced in a press conference last week that the results would be presented in the coming days. Many are asking why it has taken so long to get the results, given that the first elephants were discovered over two months ago.

Barnaby Phillips from the Elephant Protection Initiative explains that logistically it is a challenge “on the ground” as the carcasses that have been discovered so far are in a remote part of the country and are spread out over an area of 8000 square kilometers.


Botswana is home to a third of all Africa’s elephants and is a stronghold for the elephants so a problem in this area could spell potential disaster for the African elephants. The elephants have been dealt a devastating blow over the last decade or so through organised poaching, particularly in Eastern Africa and in the rainforests of Central Africa, to satisfy the demand for ivory predominantly in the Far East.

It isn’t characteristic of cyanide poisoning as this doesn’t discriminate and usually other wildlife would be affected also, such as vultures, hyenas, jackals and other scavengers feeding on the carcasses. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Botswana. It appears that only the elephants are dying. It could be a naturally occurring toxin in the soil, vegetation or water, but it’s odd it is just killing the elephants. It is affecting elephants of both genders and a variety of ages. A likely scenario is a virus or bacteria, a naturally occurring pathogen, but this hasn’t been confirmed yet.

“The future of the African Elephant is at a tipping point, having already been dealt a blow by the collapse of ecotourism due to Covid-19. Elephants are a keystone species; They play an indispensable role in the healthy functioning of the larger ecosystem. Losing these important ecosystem engineers is of extreme detriment to the environment and beyond. This is a horrific and serious story affecting not only biodiversity but potentially public health too” says Holly Budge, Founder of How Many Elephants.

Subscribe to our Newsletter. (Spam? We don’t do it.)