The deaths of hundreds of elephants in Botswana earlier this year had baffled and shocked conservationists. Officials now say the deaths were caused by toxins from algal blooms.

Almost 400 elephants were found dead in Botswana between May and July this year. Botswana is home to Africa’s largest elephant population of 130,000. Test results suggest toxins produced by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) in water are to blame for the mass deaths, officials announced.

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“Our latest tests have detected cyanobacterial neurotoxins to be the cause of deaths. These are bacteria found in water,” Mmadi Reuben, principal veterinary officer at the Botswana department of wildlife and national parks, said. “However we have many questions still to be answered such as why the elephants only and why that area only. We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating.”

Local sources suggest 70% of elephants died near water holes containing algal blooms, which produce cyanobacteria, The Guardian reported.

Algal blooms occur when algae multiply very quickly due to a combination of environmental factors. Waters that are rich in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and iron are most conductive to blooms. Agricultural run-off, sewerage, and stormwater disrupt the chemical balance of waterways, increasing the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus and feeding into algal blooms.

Scientists worry that climate change will trigger more algal blooms with more toxins as warmer water temperatures are more favorable for bacterial growth.

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Source: Al Jazeera English/YouTube

However, skeptical conservationists are demanding that the government publicly release results of the investigation.

“If it’s in waterholes or was in waterholes, why was it only elephants that were affected?,” Keith Lindsay, a conservation biologist, told CNN. Lindsay argues the evidence presented doesn’t fully rule out human involvement.

Africa’s overall elephant population is declining due to poaching. In 2019, Botswana lifted a five-year hunting ban, drawing great scrutiny from conservationists.

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