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Exploring the Mystery of Elephant Deaths in Africa

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In 2020, Zimbabwe witnessed a puzzling tragedy as six African Savannah elephants succumbed to a mysterious illness, linked to an unfamiliar bacterium known as Bisgaard taxon 45. This bacterium, previously unseen in wild elephants, was suspected to cause fatal septicaemia.

The revelation, published in Nature Communications, has stirred intrigue and concern among scientists. It also raises questions about its potential involvement in the deaths of 356 elephants in Botswana during the same year. This scientific discovery invites us to explore the enigma surrounding wildlife and its impact on these majestic animals’ future.

The Elephants of Zimbabwe: A Mysterious Tragedy Unfolds

As the world turned its attention to the plight of elephants, the incident that transpired in Zimbabwe sent shockwaves through the conservation community. In the North-Western region of the country, 35 elephants mysteriously perished, with the majority succumbing to the unexplained malaise between August and September of 2020. Dr. Chris Foggin, a wildlife veterinarian from the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, was thrust into a perplexing investigation that demanded meticulous attention.

To unearth the truth behind the elephant deaths, Dr. Foggin and his intrepid team embarked on an arduous mission. The immense size of these magnificent creatures posed a unique challenge in their post-mortem examinations. The team had to don protective gear and employ helicopters to access the vital organs required for analysis. It was a physical operation of grand proportions, showcasing the dedication of these scientists in their pursuit of answers.

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The Discovery: Bisgaard taxon 45, the Hidden Culprit

The investigation yielded crucial insights. Of the 15 elephants examined, a staggering 13 were found to have succumbed to septicaemia. The plot thickened when a potential cause of this fatal condition emerged: a bacterium known as Bisgaard taxon 45. This particular bacterium had been previously identified in swabs taken from the bites of tigers or lions, making its appearance in the bodies of African elephants all the more perplexing.

A Bacterium Like No Other

Professor Falko Steinbach from the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, an integral part of the investigative team, shed light on this unprecedented discovery. While Bisgaard taxon 45 was not entirely a mystery, having been known to exist, it had never before been associated with septicaemia in African elephants. The Professor’s supposition was that these elephants were enduring extreme stress due to the relentless drought and a scarcity of food, conditions that compromised their health and rendered them susceptible to this deadly pathogen.

The Impact of Stress and Drought

Drought, a persistent adversary in the lives of these elephants, was a contributing factor to their vulnerability. Professor Steinbach explained that many pathogens ordinarily do not induce disease, let alone death. However, when a host’s defenses falter, it provides an opening for these opportunistic bacteria to spread and wreak havoc. In this case, Bisgaard taxon 45 seemed to take advantage of the weakened state of the elephants, transcending its role as a local infection from a bite to become a cause of severe disease, and ultimately, death.

The Social Nature of Elephants: A Compounding Concern

Elephants, those paragons of social behavior in the animal kingdom, introduced another element of intrigue and concern into the equation. These creatures thrive on close interactions and communal living. The researchers now pondered if the bacterium could be transmitted among the elephants, providing a plausible explanation for the high death toll. This possibility adds a layer of complexity to an already intricate puzzle.

As the scientific community grapples with these perplexing revelations, Professor Steinbach highlighted the pressing need for further research. Important to uncover the link between this bacterial infection and the stress induced by extreme weather events such as drought. Understanding this connection is imperative, as it might make outbreaks more likely among elephant populations in the future.


The revelation of the mysterious bacterium, Bisgaard taxon 45, in the bodies of African elephants presents a perplexing enigma that the scientific community is eager to solve. This discovery not only unravels the underlying cause of elephant deaths in Zimbabwe but also raises questions about its potential role in the larger elephant population, including the 356 elephants that perished in Botswana in the same year.

The urgency of this investigation cannot be overstated. African savannah elephants, an endangered species, face an ongoing loss of 8% of their population annually. To sustain the future of this majestic species, it is essential to delve deeper into the link between infection and stress, with the hope that further studies may lead to intervention strategies, including the tantalizing possibility of a vaccine.

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