Mystery elephant deaths spark new virus fears

Elephants never forget: Conservationists worry the trauma may last for decades. © Alamy

Is a new pandemic starting in Botswana? Hundreds of elephants have dropped dead in southern Africa, baffling environmentalists. Scientists now fear a lethal disease could be the cause.

The tourists stood still in horror, their binoculars all but forgotten.

Before them, an elephant was swaying. As it lumbered in ever smaller circles its eyes began to glaze over. Suddenly, without any warning, the majestic beast collapsed, tumbling face first into the dusty ground.

Then another fell, and another. Within a few weeks, 400 elephants lay dead across Botswana, the land littered with giant corpses. By early July, the lush grasslands of the Okavango delta had transformed into an elephant graveyard. Scientists are racing to find out why.

Africa’s overall elephant population is declining. Botswana is a rare success story: elephant numbers have grown from 80,000 in the 1990s to 130,000 today. Now, they all could be at risk.

At first, conservationists thought poachers may be responsible – but the elephants’ tusks, worth thousands of pounds, were not removed.

Cyanide, placed in the water by farmers as revenge for damaged crops, was also ruled out when no other animals fell ill. And tests showed that anthrax is not to blame.

Now, scientists worry that the elephants could be infected with an unknown pathogen – a new deadly virus.

Last week, Botswana’s government received reports from samples taken from the elephants. But they have refused to release the results. Officials say they are waiting for more answers from laboratories abroad. Until then, locals are being warned not to touch the carcasses.

The fear is that whatever is killing the elephants could harm humans too.

“We are currently living with a zoonotic spillover event,” says conservationist Niall McCann. “The worst case scenario is that this could turn into another one. It is incredibly important to rule out the prospect of this crossing over into people.”

McCann is not alone in his concerns. More than six months into the coronavirus crisis, world leaders are paying more attention than ever to the threat of emerging infections.

And scientists warn that the potential for a new deadly pandemic is only rising.

Up to 1.7 million unidentified viruses are thought to exist in mammals or water birds. Any could potentially be more lethal than Covid-19.

Just this month, a herdsman in Inner Mongolia fell ill with the bubonic plague, which killed a fifth of London’s population in 1665.

Today, deforestation and mining is forcing wildlife into human environments where new diseases flourish.

Professor Matthew Baylis of Liverpool University summed up the situation: “In the last 20 years, we’ve had six significant threats: Sars, Mers, Ebola, avian influenza, swine flu, and Covid-19. We dodged five bullets, but the sixth got us. And this is not the last pandemic we are going to face, so we need to be looking more closely at wildlife disease.”

Megacities like Wuhan, where animals are forced to interact with millions of people, are the perfect places for infections to spread. The diseases may originate in wildlife, but scientists warn that humans are the real problem.

So, is a new pandemic starting in Botswana?

Death in paradise

Yes, say some. The decision of Botswana’s government not to share the test results is very sinister. Until scientists know the cause of the deaths, there is no way to prevent more elephants dying – and, crucially, to protect humans.

No, say others. There is currently no evidence of any disease in local people. Concerns of a new coronavirus-style pandemic are alarmist; it is pointless to speculate before the test results are released. The focus here should be the impact on elephants, not humans.

You Decide

  1. Are pandemics the biggest threat humans face?
  2. Are humans ultimately responsible for the spread of new diseases?


  1. Imagine you are a ranger at the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Write a diary entry describing your fears when you discover elephants are suddenly dropping dead.
  2. What steps, if any, did you take to protect yourself when you first heard about Covid-19? Write a list of five recommendations for children living in Botswana to avoid catching a potential new disease.

Some People Say...

“If anyone wants to know what elephants are like, they are like people only more so.”

Peter Corneille (1606-1684), French dramatist and poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that animals can spread diseases to humans, and scientists generally agree that human behaviour is causing this process to occur more frequently. Worryingly, species that adapt easily to living in human spaces, such as rodents or bats, are often the most effective at transmitting pathogens. For example, the 1999 Malaysian Nipah virus outbreak occurred when pigs at a forest-side farm ate fruit covered in the saliva of wild bats. More than 250 people were then infected by the pigs.
What do we not know?
It is still unclear if illness is causing the deaths and, if so, whether the disease can spread from elephants to humans. It has long been known that the bacterial infection tuberculosis (TB) can spread between captive elephants and humans. In 2016, six staff at a US zoo tested positive for TB after close contact with elephants. However, scientists do not know if other bacterias or viruses, especially one that started out as an elephant disease, can spread from elephants to humans.

Word Watch

Studies have shown that elephants display remarkably similar behaviour to humans. They live in complex societies, have strong maternal instincts, long memories, and appear to mourn the dead.
Elephants have thrived in Botswana due to wildlife reserves. They draw in thousands of tourists and account for 12% of Botswana’s GDP, but they also eat 550lb of vegetation a day, causing conflict.
In 2013, poachers in Zimbabwe used the poison to kill more than 300 elephants.
Anthrax is a bacteria found naturally in soil – elephants can breathe it in accidentally, especially in times of drought. It is not contagious.
A bacteria, virus, or any other tiny organism that can cause disease.
The dead bodies of animals.
Zoonotic spillover
The transmission of a pathogen from an animal to a human. It is a common event – more than two-thirds of human viruses start off in animals, just like Covid-19.
Niall McCann
An explorer and a conservation director for the National Park Rescue charity.
Bubonic plague
The bacterial infection was once the world’s most feared disease, but it can now be easily treated with antibiotics. Recent cases prompted Russian officials to warn remote countries not to hunt marmots, which spread the disease.
Cities with a population of over 10 million. There are more than 30 megacities worldwide.


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