Mysterious Elephants Deaths in Botswana and Zimbabwe

Karyna Hetman and Crystal Kalin

2020 has been a crazy year for everyone, including the elephants of Africa. Beginning in spring of this year, over 330 elephants in Botswana and around 34 elephants in Zimbabwe have died. This was not a result of human poaching, as suspected, but rather a bacterial disease called hemorrhagic septicemia and a deadly cyanobacteria, scientists believe as of now.

Elephants in Zimbabwe are an essential part of the ecosystem in Africa, mainly because they create water holes for other wildlife to use as well as themselves. Recently, beginning in August, the death of more than 30 elephants has led scientists to discover a deadly disease contaminating the elephants drinking water which they believe could pose as a potential threat to the overall elephant population and species as a whole. Viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) is a highly contagious fatal disease that most commonly affects fish and can be transmitted through ingestion or inhalation by direct contact or contaminated water. Scientists in Zimbabwe believe that in order for the elephants to have contracted the disease it must have been transmitted to them through their contaminated drinking water. However, Zimbabwe park authority is not 100% positive that this disease is the cause of the recent deaths and are conducting further tests to make sure they can support the theory. The elephants in Zimbabwe were found with their tusks still on their bodies which discredited all possible theories that the deaths were caused by human poaching as many had assumed. What’s weird about the whole situation is that scientists have been linking this incident to a very similar one in Botswana. Spokesman of the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority says that, “The mysterious deaths of the elephants in Zimbabwe appears similar to the deaths last month of more than 275 elephants in neighboring Botswana.”

Botswana is home to a third of Africa’s elephant population, so this increase of deaths sparked fear. In May, suspicion grew as elephant carcasses were found along watering holes. It was difficult to determine the cause of the recent deaths as the ages of the elephants were unknown and husks were still intact. On September 21 the cause of death was announced by government wildlife officials to be from toxin-producing cyanobacteria found in waterholes. Cyanobacteria are not always toxic, but scientists presume climate change can trigger the bacteria to produce toxins as the warming water temperature is a welcome host in helping the bacteria grow. Although cyanobacteria is identified as the main culprit, the death toll remains mysterious as other animals that drink from the same waterholes have not had increasing numbers of deaths.  An experienced elephant biologist of 40 years, Keith Lindsay, suggests elephants were poisoned through plants. He claims “If farmers put out poison, elephants of all ages would get that toxin and then they would go back to their waterholes”. He believes elephants in this area have been targeted and that the tests didn’t rule out other neurotoxins available to farmers. Theories on the cause of death for Botswana’s elephants are still being debated as more tests are being done and more information is coming out. 

While elephants are not considered endangered, the population is still decreasing and these peaks of death tolls in the neighboring countries have been devastating for that reason. For now the main suspect of these deaths have been the hemorrhagic septicemia disease and a toxic cyanobacteria. However, research and testing is still being done and conservationists are continuing to question the government’s answers on these occurrences.