Elephant Mortality Epidemic in Zimbabwe Linked to Unknown Bacterial Infection

VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe – In late August 2020, wildlife veterinarian Chris Foggin was in the midst of investigating the death of an elephant suspected to have died from anthrax when he received a call about more fatalities. The next day, another five dead elephants were found in north-west Zimbabwe. Concerns escalated as poaching, starvation, and anthrax were ruled out as causes of death. By November, a total of 35 African elephants had perished, their deaths shrouded in mystery.

After extensive research, Foggin and his team discovered a new culprit for the mysterious deaths: a Pasteurella bacterium known as Bisgaard taxon 45. The bacteria, previously linked to other wildlife infections, had never been known to kill African elephants. The bacterial infection caused ruptured blood vessels, leading to hemorrhagic septicaemia, a type of blood poisoning.

While the source of the infection and the route of transmission remain unknown, investigators have suggested that heat and drought conditions might have triggered the bacteria to become infectious or spread between elephants. Additionally, back-to-back poor rainy seasons preceded the outbreak, with the area in the grips of drought by the time the mass deaths occurred.

The Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust plans to continue testing for Pasteurella Bisgaard taxon 45 to further understand its impact on wildlife. The study was published in Nature Communications.

Overall, the investigation into the mysterious deaths of African elephants in Zimbabwe has shed light on the threat of bacterial septicaemia to elephant conservation efforts. However, many questions remain unanswered about Bisgaard taxon 45 and its impact on wildlife.