Scientists are struggling to explain the sudden deaths of more than 350 elephants in northern Botswana, in what has been described as “conservation disaster”.

The spate of elephant deaths in the southern African nation’s Okavango Delta was first reported in early May, with 169 confirmed to have died by the end of the month-“By mid June, the number had more than doubled,” a newspaper report stated.

It said that some carcasses were found clustered around waterholes, while others appear to have fallen-“flat on their faces”, says Niall McCann, director of conservation at UK charity National Park Rescue.

Witnesses say that live elephants seen nearby have appeared physically weak, with at least one animal “walking in circles, unable to change direction”, reports CNN.

The Botswana government says that laboratories in Canada, South Africa and Zimbabwe have been asked to “process the samples taken from the dead elephants”, in a bid to explain the mass die-off.

In a report prepared for the authorities, conservation organisation Elephants-Without-Borders (EWB) said aerial surveys showed that elephants of all ages appeared to be dying, according to Reuters.

The deaths come a year after an elephant hunting ban was repealed in Botswana, which is home to around 130,000 of the animals – almost a third of the total on the continent.

However, investigators say the carcasses were found with the tusks intact. And while cyanide poisoning is sometimes used by poachers, “it is only elephants that are dying and nothing else”, says McCann. “If it was cyanide used by poachers, you would expect to see other deaths.”

Instead, the cause of the death could be a parasite – or even coronavirus.

“There is no precedent for this being a natural phenomenon but without proper testing, it will never be known,” said McCann.

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