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Conservation Cold Case: The Mysterious Deaths of Dozens of Elephants Solved

In a case involving three dozen dead elephants in Zimbabwe, scientists have finally discovered the cause of death.

By Cassidy Ward
Two male African elephants play with each other

In early 2023, writer and director Rian Johnson, the murder mystery maestro behind Knives Out and Glass Onion, brought us a modern reimagining of Columbo in Poker Face, streaming now on Peacock. In it, casino worker turned fugitive Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) solves a sequence of mysteries using her inherent ability to know when someone is lying, while on the run across the country.

In the real world, scientists have been working a cold case involving the deaths of three dozen elephants in Zimbabwe back in 2020. Recently, they identified the culprit in the bacterium Pasteurellaceae Bisgaard taxon 45, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Mysterious Bacterial Infection Stealthily Took Down 35 Elephants

Thirty-five dead elephants were found between August and November of 2020, having died through mysterious and potentially nefarious reasons. Investigators initially suspected poisoning or activities related to poaching, but those causes were quickly ruled out. There were no dead scavengers near the bodies, which would have been expected if the animals had been poisoned, and none of the tusks had been removed.

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Live elephant stands guard over the corpse of another elephant in the desert.

Of the 35 dead elephants in Zimbabwe, scientists analyzed 15. They were able to confirm the presence of Bisgaard taxon 45 in six of the corpses. The bacterium was not identified in the remainder because the team struggled to get permits in time before they had decomposed too badly, but researchers are confident the bacterium was responsible.

Bisgaard taxon 45 is closely related to another microbe called Pasteurella multocida which is known to cause hemorrhagic septicemia – blood poisoning – in other animals. Moreover, it’s believed P. multocida hangs out natively inside the animals it attacks, only emerging under the right conditions. Back in 2015, a 10-day period of high humidity caused multocida to rapidly multiply inside the tonsils of saiga antelope. An estimated 200,000 died suddenly over the course of about three weeks. It appears that something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, occurred with elephants and Bisgaard taxon 45.

The elephants all showed signs of enlarged spleens and livers, extensive internal bleeding, and tissue death. All symptoms consistent with fatal blood poisoning. Scientists suspect that the pathogen was also responsible for 14 other elephant deaths in 2019. At present, it’s unclear if the elephants were infected by an external source or if Bisgaard taxon 45 lives natively in their bodies and simply went into overdrive for reasons unknown.

If Charlie Cale has a few spare minutes between now and Season 2 of Poker Face, we could sure use her help on this one. In the meantime, catch the complete first season of Poker Face streaming now on Peacock!

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