A team of conservationists came upon the carcasses of 87 elephants in Botswana on Monday, according to the BBC.
The elephants had their heads smashed in and their tusks removed — obvious marks of poachers — and their corpses were partly covered in bushes as if to hide the crime.
They were found near the Okavango Delta wildlife sanctuary, a famous tourist location deep in the country.
The scene was especially harrowing because Botswana is recognized as one of the staunchest defenders of wildlife in Africa, according to the conservation nonprofit Elephants Without Borders, which discovered the elephants while conducting a routine aerial survey of the surrounding landscape.
"This requires urgent and immediate action by the Botswana government," Mike Chase director and founder of Elephants Without Borders, told the BBC.
"Botswana has always been at the forefront of conservation and it will require political will,” he added. "Our new president must uphold Botswana's legacy and tackle this problem quickly. Tourism is vitally important for our economy, jobs, as well as our international reputation, which is at stake here as being a safe stronghold for elephants."
Botswana is home to more than 130,000 elephants, more than any other country in Africa, which makes it a prime target for poachers.
Dozens of #elephants killed near Botswana wildlife sanctuary! Elephants Without Borders, is conducting an aerial survey, The scale of poaching deaths is largest seen in Africa and coincides with Botswana's anti-poaching unit being disarmed. https://t.co/dNQYksJwMt#wildlifecrimepic.twitter.com/4lCBD5qzxo— Global Elephants (@GlobalElephants) September 3, 2018
The country has well-armed and well-trained anti-poaching units that patrol areas with high elephant activity and the military also contributes to anti-poaching efforts.
As a result, poaching has been kept to a minimum, partly because anti-poaching teams were able to shoot known poachers on sight, a policy that has been criticized by human rights advocates as too extreme.
The country’s sanctuary status even began to attract elephants from other countries, crossing the border into Botswana for safety, according to the BBC.
In May, however, these groups had their weapons switched from automatic rifles to other high-caliber guns, and Elephants Without Borders thinks that this transition may have played a part in the mass death.
If anti-poaching teams hadn’t been interfered with, then they might have been able to deter the poachers, the nonprofit claimed.
"People did warn us of an impending poaching problem and we thought we were prepared for it," Chase told the BBC, referring to the disarming.
"The poachers are now turning their guns to Botswana,” he added. “We have the world's largest elephant population and it's open season for poachers.”
Other conservationists based in Botswana including Kathleen Alexander of Botswana's Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation dispute these allegations, however, and argue that poaching has actually continued to decline in recent years in the country. They also argue that by focusing on the altered gun policy, the government of Botswana is being needlessly vilified.
Sad news coming out of Botswana, a haven for #elephants, with dozens of animals killed. Anywhere is vulnerable to organised crime. We've made gains but we are not there yet & must keep up the fight! @BBCWorldhttps://t.co/FEP4HXGiGO#endwildlifecrime#ElephantsWithoutBorderspic.twitter.com/I11qHIcATu— John E. Scanlon (@JohnEScanlon) September 3, 2018
Either way, the slaughter highlights the ongoing poaching crisis facing Africa. Each year, up to 35,000 elephants are poached and the continent’s elephant population declined by 30% between 2007 and 2014.
Poaching is fueled by demand for ivory, which is shaped into valuable items or pulverized for human consumption. In recent years, major ivory markets like the UK, the US, and China have either banned or restricted the sale of ivory.
But the underground sale of ivory continues to thrive, leading to elephants being poisoned, shot, and otherwise killed for their tusks.
This piece has been updated to reflect new information on Sept. 10.