“They died within a very narrow time frame. That’s one of the most puzzling parts of the whole puzzle. So many animals dying close together, but not right next to each other, and in such a small time frame. I think it’s quite unique, especially in this part of the world,” said Chris Foggin, a veterinarian at Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust in Zimbabwe, and co-author of the study into the cause of the deaths.
35 elephants died in northwestern Zimbabwe between late August and November 2020. Eleven of them died within a 24-hour period. Earlier that year, as many as 350 elephants died in neighboring Botswana. There too, the deaths were sudden and close together. The herd animals all died within three months.
Experts initially thought of poaching and poisoning, but there was never a clear answer. Now, three years later, there is a clear cause. After examining 15 different elephants from Zimbabwe, it turns out that they had a bacterial infection. From the research, published in Nature Communications, shows that the little-known bacterium ‘Bisgaard taxon 45’ poisoned the blood of the elephants. However, further details have not yet been announced. According to Foggin, there is also no proven link between elephant deaths in Zimbabwe and Botswana as only elephants from the first country were examined.
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The mortality occurred when food and water supplies decreased, during the dry season. As a result, the elephants had to travel greater and greater distances to eat and drink. According to the study authors, heat, drought and population density in that area likely contributed to the outbreak. Due to more extreme weather conditions, scientists believe we will see more dead elephants in the future.
“It’s premature to say that climate change has had an impact on this, but that could be the case in the future if we have more and longer droughts, or if precipitation patterns change and we have a much more severe dry season,” Foggin said . “I think if that’s the case, these types of deaths are more likely to occur again.”