Climate Crisis Implicated in Mysterious Deaths of 35 African Elephants in Zimbabwe

Between the end of August and November 2020, an unsettling phenomenon unfolded in the northwestern region of Zimbabwe as 35 African elephants mysteriously perished. Adding to the intrigue, eleven members of this large herd succumbed within a single day.

The recent revelation of the enigma behind the sudden mass mortality, as detailed in a recent study, suggests that such incidents may become more frequent due to the conditions exacerbated by the climate crisis.

Chris Foggin, a veterinarian at Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust in Zimbabwe and co-author of the study, expressed his bewilderment over the abrupt deaths of the elephants, stating, “The fact that so many animals died within such a short time frame, in proximity but not right next to each other, is one of the most puzzling aspects of this entire situation. The occurrence of so many deaths in this short period is quite unprecedented, especially in this part of the world.”

In the same year, approximately 350 elephants in the neighboring northern region of Botswana also experienced sudden deaths over a span of three months, a mystery that was eventually solved.

A study based on samples taken from 15 of the deceased elephants in Zimbabwe revealed that a bacterial infection was the cause of their deaths. Published in the journal Nature Communications on October 25, the study identified the relatively unknown bacterium Bisgaard taxon 45, leading to septicemia, or blood poisoning.

The tragic events unfolded during the dry season when food and water supplies were scarce, compelling elephants to cover longer distances in search of sustenance. Researchers pointed to factors such as heat, drought, and high population density in the region as likely contributors to the outbreak. They warned that the extreme conditions, expected to become more frequent with global warming, could potentially lead to an increase in elephant fatalities in the future.

While it is too early to directly link these events to climate change, Foggin cautioned that the likelihood of such incidents could rise due to more frequent and severe droughts or changes in rainfall patterns leading to harsher dry seasons. He expressed concern that if these challenging conditions persist, tragic mortality events among elephants may become more commonplace.



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