Worrying news has recently come to light: hundreds of elephants have been found dead in Botswana, and as yet, there is no clear cause of death. But as an expert in elephants and their conservation, I believe we can at least rule out a few possible answers.
Here’s what we do know: the first deaths were reported in March, but significant numbers were only recorded from May onwards. To date, it’s thought that the death toll stands at nearly 400 elephants of both sexes and all ages. Most of the deaths have occurred near the village of Seronga on the northern fringes of the Okavango Delta, a vast swampy inland region that hosts huge wildlife populations. Many of the carcasses have been found near to water.
Of those discovered so far, some lay on their knees and faces (rather than on their side), suggesting sudden death, although there are also reports of elephants looking disoriented and even walking in circles. The tusks of the dead elephants are still in place and, as yet, no other species have died under similar circumstances.
Botswana’s elephant politics
Botswana has long been a stronghold for Africa’s remaining 400,000 elephants, boasting a third of the continent’s population. While elephant numbers have widely declined in recent decades, largely due to poaching, Botswana’s population has grown.
However, this growth has been outpaced by the ever-increasing human population. With more elephants and more people, competition for space has escalated and increasingly, elephants and people find themselves at odds. Some communities see elephants as pests, as they feed on and trample crops, cause damage to infrastructure and threaten the lives of people and livestock. In return, people retaliate by killing and injuring offending elephants.
With large rural communities struggling to coexist with elephants, the issue has become highly politicised. In 2019, in a controversial move, president Mokgweetsi Masisi lifted a ban on the hunting of elephants in Botswana, reasoning that hunting could both reduce their numbers and generate income for struggling rural communities. This, against a backdrop of rising poaching, suggests that times are changing for Botswana’s elephants.
This has sparked speculation about the recent deaths. However, given what we know, we can address some of the rumours.
Firstly, it seems unlikely that poachers are to blame, since the tusks of the dead elephants have not been removed. It’s estimated that illegal black-market ivory trade is responsible for the deaths of 20,000 elephants annually.
The elephants could have been killed by frustrated local people, typically by shooting or spearing. In this case however, the sheer number of dead elephants and the lack of reports of gunshot or spearing wounds, does not support this hypothesis.
Poisoning could be used instead, either by poachers or in retaliation by locals. A few years ago hundreds of elephants in Zimbabwe died after drinking from watering holes laced with cyanide, and the proximity of many of the recent deaths to water has given the idea some foundation.
However, in the event of poisoning, we would expect to see other species dying as well, either because they drank from the same poisoned water source or because they fed on the poisoned carcass of the elephant, and this has not been reported.
A natural cause of death?
If the evidence currently available doesn’t support foul play, that leads us to consider natural causes.
Drought can cause significant deaths. In 2009, a drought killed around 400 elephants in Amboseli, Kenya, a quarter of the local population. But drought tends to kill the very young and old, while the deaths recently reported in Botswana show elephants of all ages are affected. Moreover, rainfall in recent months has been near normal, ruling out the influence of drought.
Perhaps because wildlife disease has gained much attention in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the remaining possibility that has been widely suggested is disease. While COVID-19 itself is unlikely, elephants, like humans, are affected by a range of diseases.
For instance, over 100 were suspected to have died from an anthrax outbreak in Botswana in 2019. Those elephants that seemed disoriented and to be walking in circles might suggest a disease causing a neurological condition.
Still, the information currently available is inconclusive. The Botswana government has released a statement explaining that investigations are ongoing and that laboratories had been identified to process samples taken from the carcasses of dead elephants.
To avoid further speculation and prevent the deaths of more elephants in their last remaining stronghold, it’s vital that investigations are expedited so that the cause of death can be determined and suitable action taken.
The link below is to an article that reports on how one hunter in Zimbabwe has killed some 5000 elephants in his lifetime and countless other animals. He has no regrets.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the threats to Botswana’s elephants from poaching.
Ensuring the economic health of nations is one of the biggest tasks expected of governments. The elephant in the room has long been the health of the environment, on which the health of the economy (and everything else) ultimately depends.
Most countries still rely on gross domestic product as the lead measure of their economic health. But this does not account for the loss of environmental condition. There is a growing recognition of the environmental damage that human activity causes, our dependence on a functioning environment, and the need for new approaches to measure and manage the world.
We hope this new idea can be advanced internationally at the two-week meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which began this week in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
Integrating the environment into national accounts has long been suggested as a way to improve information and has been tried in several countries.
In Botswana, where elephants are included in the nation’s environmental accounts, spending on wildlife conservation is now seen as an investment, rather than a cost. This example shows how integrating environmental assets into economic data can help provide a new policy framing for conservation. But worldwide, this type of “expanded accounting” has had limited impact on policy decisions so far.
By 2020, at the latest, biodiversity values have been integrated into national and local development and poverty reduction strategies and planning processes and are being incorporated into national accounting, as appropriate, and reporting systems. (emphasis added)
This provides a clear starting point for conservationists and economists to work together. So far, little has been done on the valuation of biodiversity, and the work that has been done so far has not progressed very far on the question of how to integrate environmental and economic values into national accounting.
On one hand, putting monetary values on biodiversity has been decried as the commodification of nature. But we argue that without using appropriately defined monetary values, the environment will always be vulnerable to economic forces. If Aichi Target 2 is to be met by 2020, we clearly need an agreed concept of biodiversity value, and a shared approach to recognising it.
It pays to invest in biodiversity
Crucially, as well as calculating the environment’s contribution to the economy, we also need to assess the requirements for maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. To return to the example of Botswana’s elephants, this means recognising that elephants need land and water (Botswana’s wildlife consumes 10% of all its water, with elephants accounting for most use). As tourism-related industries generated roughly US$2 billion in 2013 (Botswana’s second-largest sector by revenue, with mining the first), the allocation of water and land to wildlife is clearly a prudent investment decision.
This approach can also reveal the impacts and trade-offs resulting from different land uses on environmental values. In Victoria’s Central Highlands, for example, the cessation of native logging would reduce revenue from timber production, but would also help support a range of rare and endangered species, including Leadbeater’s Possum. It would also benefit a range of other industries like agriculture, as well as the people in cities like Melbourne.
Keeping the books up to date
Like any accounting system, these estimates of the economic value of the environment would need to be updated, ideally annually, if they are to remain relevant in underpinning governments’ decisions. This would also entail regular data collection on the species and ecosystems themselves.
Unfortunately, however, consistent long-term nationwide monitoring of biodiversity at the species or ecosystem level is rarely done. And while remote-sensing offers some promise for landscape-scale monitoring of major ecosystem types (such as tropical savannahs, temperate forests, wetlands), there is generally no substitute for boots on the ground.
This month’s summit in Egypt offers an opportunity for countries to reaffirm their recognition of the benefits that biodiversity provides to people and the economy. It also provides a chance to go further, to agree that integrated accounting will help us understand and appreciate the trade-offs between the environment and economy.
Recognising and accounting for the elephant in the room would be a great achievement – not to mention a sound investment in the future.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Heather Keith to this article.
Michael Vardon, Associate Professor at the Fenner School, Australian National University; Carl Obst, Honorary Research Fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University
Matthew H. Holden, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, The University of Queensland
The tusks of more than ten thousand elephants went up in flames in Kenya on April 30, 2016 – the world’s largest ever ivory burn. It was meant as a powerful display against poaching and the illegal ivory trade.
But did those flames reach their intended target?
Currently, governments, donors and NGOs aren’t monitoring the impact of these ivory burns. So we tracked the media coverage of the Kenyan burn, with the results published this month in Conservation Biology.
Who got the message?
We had a simple question in mind with this research: did news of this burn make its way to ivory consumers and elephant poachers, and if so was the message one that denounced poaching?
The answer is a bit nuanced. Certainly the news of the ivory burn was strong (loud and clear) locally in Kenya and Tanzania and heavily amplified by news outlets across the western world (81% of online articles on the burn were produced in the United States).
Unfortunately, we found low coverage of the burn in China, Vietnam and other countries where demand for illegal ivory is highest.
Of the 1,944 online articles that covered the burn in the countries sampled, only 61 where produced in mainland china. Additionally, more than half of the coverage in China was in English language publications, which may not reach or resonate with all key ivory consumers.
The good news is, media stories around the ivory burn delivered an anti-poaching message. They stressed the importance of burns, ivory trade bans and law enforcement to catch poachers, smugglers and dealers, as key steps to saving elephants.
To burn or not to burn?
The authors on our research paper are a group of scientists and conservationists with diverse backgrounds, across Africa, North America, Australia, Europe and Asia. Our values are as diverse as our experiences.
Most of us feel a bit of sadness because watching elephant tusks engulfed in flames is a reminder of elephant slaughter.
For some of us though, the sadness is tempered by feelings of hope and justice – this is ivory that will never go into the hands of illegal dealers and ivory consumers and, as such, acts as a major deterrent.
But for others, the response was upsetting – animals had been murdered, and to add insult to injury, their remains wasted.
In the Kenyan burn, the ivory was estimated to be worth more than US$100 million (A$128 million) on the black market.
These stockpiles of ivory are an unfortunate reality. Ivory is harvested by elephant poachers. Between 2007 and 2014 an estimated 144,000 elephants were killed. If we are lucky, these poachers are caught and their ivory confiscated. Piles of seized ivory accumulate in massive stockpiles across Africa.
So this poses a difficult situation. What should we do with all that ivory?
We’d all, obviously, rather see ivory where it belongs, on live elephants. In an ideal world ivory would only be collected, if at all, from elephants that died from natural causes and so trade in this product would not be a problem.
But the world isn’t ideal. Even though the price of ivory has declined, elephant tusks have been known to fetch up to US$10,000 (A$12,800). With the financial incentive to poach so high, it sometimes seems like an insurmountable problem.
Ivory for conservation
Some of us believe that destroying ivory sends a strong message against poaching and illegal ivory trade – by saying that ivory is only valuable on a living elephant.
These members of our group think that we might as well burn these stockpiles, to demonstrate that trade should never be supported (as it cannot be adequately policed). They are heartened by the adoption of ivory trade bans by China and the United States.
But others in the group think destroying a quantity of ivory – worth far more on the black market than Kenya’s entire annual wildlife management budget – squanders an opportunity to sell the ivory.
The money could then be used to conserve elephants and other endangered wildlife (although pro-trade proponents acknowledge that there are implementation issues regarding corruption and policing efficacy).
To these members of our group, burning the ivory would be like burning cash in front of a person with no food or shelter.
Deep down inside, we all have one common goal, to save elephants.
Rather than arguing based on our emotions, that’s why we carried out the latest research – a first step towards helping us decide whether ivory burns will reduce poaching.
With the most recent ivory destruction event, in Melbourne, Australia, now is the time to think deeply about the efficacy of these ivory destruction events.
We need messages to be targeted towards the most important audiences, and we need to monitor consumer behaviour – not just the media coverage – in response to these events.
The scientific evidence for which action best saves elephants – burning or using regulated ivory sales to fund conservation – is still inconclusive. But as long as we move forward with ivory destruction, let’s make sure we monitor its impact.
Matthew H. Holden, Lecturer, Centre for Applications in Natural Resource Mathematics, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, PhD Candidate – Wildlife Cameraman, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland