VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe – In late August of 2020, wildlife veterinarian Chris Foggin was in the midst of conducting a post-mortem on an elephant that was suspected to have died from anthrax when he received a disturbing call. The call reported that there had been multiple elephant fatalities in the area. The next day, five more dead elephants were discovered in the scorching Zimbabwean heat.
Foggin and his team worked tirelessly to collect post-mortem tissue samples from the deceased elephants, but the rate of decomposition made it impossible to reach all of the carcasses. By November, a total of 35 African elephants had died in north-west Zimbabwe, prompting growing concern as poaching, starvation, and anthrax were ruled out as causes of death.
After extensive analysis, a bacterium called Bisgaard taxon 45 was identified as the likely culprit for the mysterious deaths. This strain of the Pasteurella bacterium, never before known to kill African elephants, was found in the tissue samples of several deceased elephants. The researchers noted that the outbreak occurred following back-to-back poor rainy seasons and drought conditions.
The rapid spread of the bacteria among these highly social animals raised questions about how the infection was transmitted. Some researchers believe that heat and drought may have triggered the normally harmless bacteria to become infectious. However, the exact source of infection and route of transmission remain unknown.
The study concluded that the presence of bacterial septicaemia in the elephants provides wildlife veterinarians and conservationists with a new and crucial factor to consider when investigating sudden elephant mortality. The findings were published in Nature Communications.
The outbreak of elephant deaths in Zimbabwe revealed new challenges in wildlife conservation and highlighted the need for continued research and vigilance in protecting these majestic animals.