Between August and November 2020, 35 African elephants in northwestern Zimbabwe dropped dead seemingly out of nowhere. Eleven of those animals died within a 24-hour period. Earlier that year, about 350 elephants in Botswana also suddenly died throughout a three-month period. The phenomenon baffled scientists and led them to seek out answers. The findings were published in a new study in the Nature Communications journal.
“They died over a very narrow window. That’s one of the most enigmatic parts of the whole puzzle. That many animals dying quite close together but not right next to each other over such a narrow space of time. It’s really to my mind, rather unique, certainly in this part of the world,” study co-author Dr. Chris Foggin said, per CNN.
While officials and experts initially blamed things like poaching, poisoning, and drought for the massive death event, it turns out it was actually a bacterial infection that killed the elephants in Zimbabwe. The Bisgaard taxon 45 bacterium caused septicemia, or blood poisoning, in the animals. As food and water sources began to shrink during the dry season, the bacteria was able to spread easier thanks to heat, drought, and population density in the area as the elephants searched longer and harder for ways to survive.
As the planet continues to warm, this phenomenon could very well become more common. Foggin noted that the research doesn't directly tie the elephants' death to climate change, but it points to a troubling trend that could worsen if global temperatures continue to rise.
"It’s premature to say that climate change has influenced [this' but it may do so in future if we get more and prolonged droughts, or the rainfall patterns [change] and we have a much harsher dry season,” Foggin said. “I do think that if that is the case, then we are more likely to see this sort of mortality event occurring again."
It might be smart to plan that safari sooner rather than later.