Hundreds of elephants in the African country of Botswana have died under mysterious circumstances, and animal activists are criticizing the nation's seemingly slow response to the situation, The Guardian reported.
At least 350 elephants have died in the northern part of the country, and the number may be considerably higher, as the animals' carcasses can be difficult to spot.
The first reports of mass die-offs of the pachyderms started emerging in early May when a cluster of dead elephants was first spotted. By the end of the month, 169 had died.
Further, emaciated and sickly-looking but still-living elephants have been seen, suggesting that more will die soon.
Researchers are baffled as to why the animals are dying. The clues, however, seem to rule out poaching.
Most of the dead animals have been found around watering holes. Locals say that they have observed the elephants walking around in circles before they died, possibly suggesting some sort of neurological impairment -- ostensibly due to poisoning, as poachers have been known to do. However, animals that feed off their carcasses don't appear to be showing signs of being poisoned, thus ruling out such a possibility.
Anthrax, a naturally-occurring pathogen, has also been ruled out.
Dr. Niall McCann, the director of conservation at U.K.-based charity National Park Rescue, is further baffled because some elephants seem to linger for days after first contracting whatever eventually kills them, others get so sick so quickly that they fall over dead where they once stood.
"If you look at the carcasses, some of them have fallen straight on their face, indicating they died very quickly. Others are obviously dying more slowly, like the ones that are wandering around. So it's very difficult to say what this toxin is," McCann said.
Could it possibly be COVID-19 -- the infectious disease that has been on everyone's mind for the past few months? The Guardian called that scenario "unlikely," although the jury is still out on whether or not how -- or even if -- the novel coronavirus affects nonhuman animals.
Meanwhile, conservationists are alarmed at the Botswanan government's apparent lack of response to the crisis. No samples of tissue from a dead elephant appear to have been sent to any labs -- a process that could provide valuable clues as to why the animals are dying.
"It seems extraordinary that the government has not sent the samples to a reputable lab," McCann said.
Botswana's allegedly lackadaisical response is particularly confusing, considering that eco-tourism is a large part of the country's economy, second only to diamond exports.