Mystery surrounds the deaths of 26 elephants in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, managed by the Narok county government, in the last three months.
Although the cause of the deaths remains “unknown”, at least 11 of the jumbos are suspected to have been poisoned.
In November alone, seven deaths were categorised as “unknown” but there was evidence pointing toward poisoning, a damning report published last week by the Mara Elephant Project (MEP) says.
The report, published on the MEP website and shared on their Facebook page on December 14, says the poisoning may be as a result of human-wildlife conflicts.
Preliminary investigations indicate some of the dead elephants were poisoned with cyanide.
That means they were targeted either for their tusks (poaching) or as retaliation after they invaded private farms and destroyed crops.
“Now, there is some evidence based on the location and circumstances of these unknown deaths that are pointing toward poisoning as a result of conflict retaliation, and there are some unknown deaths that point to pesticide poisoning,” reads the report in part.
Researchers suspect local communities, especially crop farmers, could have poisoned the jumbos that have been invading their farms and destroying crops.
"We're looking for evidence that poison was used to kill the elephants. Other things we may find out include, if a strong pesticide was found in their system that may have resulted in the deaths," the report states.
In September, the findings showed that three elephant carcasses were found in proximity of protected areas of the ecosystem.
Five of the elephants during this reporting period died as a result of “natural causes”, the report added.
“But what’s disturbing is the rise in ‘unknown’ elephant deaths of which there are 11 of these cases in this reporting period. However, not all 26 cases were attributed to being mysterious,” MEP chief executive officer Marc Goss told the Nation.
“We will harmonise the monitoring of illegally killed elephants every quarter and the next quarter is planned to be done in January. This means that we can then share the exact data publicly of how they were killed,” said Mr Goss.
The report indicates that MEP rangers in partnership Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) took samples and sent them to a KWS lab in Nairobi for analysis.
During the post-mortem conducted by a KWS veterinary, there was no indication of disease and therefore hard to pinpoint the cause of the jumbo deaths.
KWS is yet to release a report on their findings.
Contacted for a comment, Narok County Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Senior Warden Dickson Ritan referred the Nation to their media spokesperson in Nairobi, saying they were not involved in the report.
“We were not part of the report, but you can call KWS spokesperson who is mandated to respond on such matters,” said Mr Ritan on phone.
However, the Nation’s calls to the spokesperson, Mr Paul Masela, went unanswered.
On its part, Narok county government said they were shocked by the report and wondered how the organisation arrived at the number of the dead animals.
Maasai Mara Senior Game Warden Moses Kuyioni, however, poked holes in the report, questioning the mandate of MEP on the reserve situated in south-western Kenya.
He said they were in contact with MEP to explain why it was released without their input and involvement.
“We called the organisation on Sunday over the same, and more communication on the same would be released later,” said Mr Kuyioni.
The elephant conservation group raised the alarm at a time human-wildlife conflicts are on the rise in Narok and Laikipia conservation areas.
Some farmers, especially those along Enkare Narok River, have abandoned farming after repeated destruction of their crops by the roaming pachyderms.
“In an area where we suspect a strong pesticide was being used on tomatoes, MEP has set up a rapid response unit to monitor the situation, keep elephants out of tomato farms, speak with community members about the pesticides they are using and monitor the elephant’s water source,” reads the report.
The MEP report fell short of indicating if tusks were intact when the elephants were found dead.