Mystery virus could be killing hundreds of elephants in Africa

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Scientists fear a mystery virus is behind the deaths of hundreds of elephants in Botswana – and it could spread to humans.

More than 350 elephants of varying ages and sex have died from unknown causes – with aerial photos showing their carcasses scattered across the Okavango Delta and other northern parts of the country. 

Experts now think a novel elephant virus could be behind what has been dubbed a ‘conservation disaster’ amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

And some fear the pathogen – the name of which is not yet known – could spread to humans.

There has been no drought in the area and poaching and anthrax have both been ruled out as potential causes of death. But other poisons – such as cyanide – could be a possibility.

Scientists fear a mystery virus is behind the deaths of hundreds of elephants in Botswana (pictured) – and it could spread to humans 

The carcasses are yet to be tested for pathogens or poison despite the first dying in early May

The carcasses are yet to be tested for pathogens or poison despite the first dying in early May

Director of National Park Rescue Dr Niall McCann told The Daily Express: ‘It is incredibly important to rule out the prospect of this crossing over into people.

‘Yes, it is a conservation disaster – but it also has the potential to be a public health crisis.

‘The whole environment needs to be sampled — the vegetation, water and soil.’

Parts of the elephant carcasses have been sent to Zimbabwe as samples in a bid to learn more about what is killing the creatures.

Another set of test results will also come in from South Africa. 

The first unusual deaths were reported in May when 169 elephants died in a short period at the Okavango Delta, a marshy and lush wildlife habitat.

That number had almost doubled by mid June, with 70 per cent of the deaths occurring around waterholes, according to local sources.

The country's government has blamed covid-19 restrictions for the slow processing of the elephant's tests and said the tests have been sent to another country for analysis

The country’s government has blamed covid-19 restrictions for the slow processing of the elephant’s tests and said the tests have been sent to another country for analysis

Some elephants look as if they have died within moments, falling flat on their faces, while others were reportedly walking around in circles before passing away

Some elephants look as if they have died within moments, falling flat on their faces, while others were reportedly walking around in circles before passing away

Locals say 70 per cent of the deaths are taking place near waterholes, which could offer a clue

 Locals say 70 per cent of the deaths are taking place near waterholes, which could offer a clue

Locals in the area had reported seeing the elephants walking in circles suggesting they have been neurologically impaired either by a pathogen or a poison.

Dr Cyril Taolo, acting director for Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks said: ‘We are aware of the elephants that are dying. 

Out of the 350 animals we have confirmed 280 of those animals. We are still in the process of confirming the rest.’

An elephant's sunken body is seen in the bushes, locals remarked that fewer vultures than would normally have been expected had interfered with the bodies

An elephant’s sunken body is seen in the bushes, locals remarked that fewer vultures than would normally have been expected had interfered with the bodies

President Mokgweetsi Masisi last year lifted a five-year ban on big game hunting, however coronavirus has not allowed the season to commence this year

President Mokgweetsi Masisi last year lifted a five-year ban on big game hunting, however coronavirus has not allowed the season to commence this year

Dr McCann said the recent deaths were a 'conservation disaster' as the country fails to protect one of its most valuable assets

Dr McCann said the recent deaths were a ‘conservation disaster’ as the country fails to protect one of its most valuable assets

The lack of vultures on the carcasses also caused locals to suggest something outside of a natural phenomenon was causing the deaths. 

Although Africa’s overall elephant population is declining due to poaching, Botswana’s numbers are growing.

The southern African country is home to a third of the continent’s elephants and has grown a population of 80,000 to 130,000 because of well-managed reserves.

Eco-tourism is a large part of the country's income, 130,000 elephants are thought to be living in the country

Eco-tourism is a large part of the country’s income, 130,000 elephants are thought to be living in the country

Locals have urged the government to guard the elephant's bodies to stop tusks being removed by poachers

Locals have urged the government to guard the elephant’s bodies to stop tusks being removed by poachers

It is not known if the animal's bodies pose a risk to humans, with urgent testing needed

It is not known if the animal’s bodies pose a risk to humans, with urgent testing needed

An elephant's body decomposes. It appears to have died a quick death falling from standing into an unnatural position

An elephant’s body decomposes. It appears to have died a quick death falling from standing into an unnatural position

A bloated elephant carcass is seen in the Okavango Delta. 15,000 are believed to be in the wildlife habitat alone

A bloated elephant carcass is seen in the Okavango Delta. 15,000 are believed to be in the wildlife habitat alone

There are about 15,000 elephants in the Okavango delta, and the pull of tourists to the country’s wildlife is thought to bring in around 12 per cent of its GDP.

However elephants are still under threat, farmers see them as a nuisance for destroying crops and poaching is still prevalent.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi last year lifted a five-year ban on big game hunting imposed by previous president Ian Khama.

But coronavirus travel restrictions meant that the hunting season did not take off this year. 

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