Deaths of more than 300 elephants caused by toxic algae

Clay Curtis
September 22, 2020

The bacteria is found in water.

Initially, possible explanations over the deaths had ranged from poaching to anthrax to poisoning. The hundreds of elephants died from ingesting toxins produced by cyanobacteria.

Featured image: A dead elephant is seen in this undated handout image in Okavango Delta, Botswana May-June, 2020.

The elephants in the Seronga area died from a neurological disorder that appears to have been caused by drinking water tainted by "a toxic bloom of cyanobacterium in seasonal pans (water sources) in the region", said Cyril Taolo, acting Director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. "These are bacteria found in water", Mmadi Reuben, principal veterinary officer at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, told a news conference on Monday.

"We considered the possibility of cyanobacteria but we have no evidence that this is the case here (in Zimbabwe)", said Chris Foggin, a veterinarian at the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust.

"Climate change and the effect of global warming on the region is increasing both the intensity and severity of harmful algal blooms, making this issue more likely to reoccur".

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Mr Taolo maintained neurotoxins from cyanobacteria living in contaminated water could have affected the transmission of neurologic signals within an animal, causing paralysis and death, predominately related to respiratory failure.

Keith Lindsay, another official, said that the animals died while walking, which was unusual. Without good samples from dead elephants, all hypotheses are just that: "hypotheses", said McCann, highlighting that correlation doesn't equal causation, especially if there is to be any real hope of protecting the animals in future.

In Africa and Asia, elephant habitat is being replaced by agriculture - both by small-scale farmers and worldwide agribusiness such as palm oil. But 32 other African nations believe all trade in elephants must end.

Poachers have decimated elephant populations in other parts of Africa, but in Botswana, the animals continue to thrive.

Because of climate change, Southern Africa's temperatures are rising at twice the global average, according to CSAG, one of the leading climate research groups in Africa.

"It amounts to having the right conditions, in the right time, in the right place and these species will proliferate", said Prof Patricia Glibert of the University of Maryland Centre for Environmental Science, who has studied cyanobacteria. It did not mention evidence from Africa, but cited examples from many other countries worldwide, saying that the toxic blooms can kill or injure fish, birds and mammals.

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