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Scientists discover cause of mysterious elephant deaths
The infection may have been spread by elephants socialising.
A septicaemic infection may have caused the deaths of over 380 elephants.

Scientists from the University of Surrey have helped to link the deaths of over 380 elephants to the outbreak of a septicaemic infection.

The infection, caused by a little-known bacteria, is believed to have spread across endangered African savanna elephants in Botswana and Zimbabwe in the space of just five months.

The investigation was launched after the mysterious deaths of 35 elephants in Zimbabwe between August and September 2020. This had followed 350 mortalities in neighbouring northern Botswana in May and June 2020.

This could have a serious impact on the future of the endangered species, which is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list with only 350,000 African savanna elephants remaining.

African savanna elephants are already seeing deaths occur at an alarming rate, with eight per cent of the population dying per year.

Researchers from the University of Surrey, the Animal and Plant Health Agency UK, the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust and laboratories in South Africa began to study what had caused these latest deaths. This involved conducting post mortems of the elephants on-site.

The research team quickly discounted that these deaths had been the result of poachers, who have been known to kill elephants in the area for their ivory, as the elephants still had their tusks.

Suggestions that the elephants had been poisoned were also disproved after toxicology reports found no signs of cyanide in their bodies or watering holes.

However they had a breakthrough when they discovered a septicaemic infection caused by a little-known bacteria, preliminarily called Bisgaard taxon 45.

The presence of Bisgaard taxon 45, an unclassified member of the Pasteurellaceae bacterial family, was confirmed in six elephants through bacterial isolation and genetic analysis. Pasteurella bacteria has previously been associated with the sudden deaths of wild antelope, but not in elephants prior to the study.

It is theorised that the social nature of elephants may have contributed to the transmission of this bacteria, particularly in connection to stress caused by extreme weather events, such as drought.

Dr Arnoud van Vliet, senior lecturer in veterinary microbiology at the University of Surrey’s School of Veterinary Sciences said: “The international composition of our research team highlights the opportunities arising for conservation investigations into the disease and death of free-ranging animals.

“Bisgaard taxon 45 has never before been associated with bacterial septicaemia and it adds to the growing list of disease related threats to elephant conservation.”

The full study will be published in the journal Nature Communications.

Image © Shutterstock

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VMG president joins House of Lords

News Story 1
 Miles Russell, president of the Veterinary Management Group (VMG), has been elected to the House of Lords as a crossbench hereditary peer.

He will join Lord Trees as a representative of the veterinary sector in the second chamber of the UK parliament.

Lord Russell said: "Those of us working in the animal health and veterinary sectors are only too aware of the importance of the work we do and the challenges we face.

"I will use my platform in the House of Lords to increase understanding of our sectors and to promote positive change." 

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Sixth case of bluetongue confirmed

A sixth case of bluetongue virus serotype 3 has been confirmed in the UK.

The case was detected in an animal on a premises linked to one of the farms within the Temporary Control Zone (TCZ) currently in place near Canterbury, Kent.

In response, the Animal and Plant Health Agency has extended the TCZ. Investigations into the spread of the disease are ongoing.

The cases in Kent come at a time when a new strain of the virus has spread rapidly across farms in the Netherlands. Both the Government and the British Veterinary Association have urged livestock keepers to remain vigilant.

Bluetongue is a notifiable disease and suspected cases must be reported immediately on 03000 200 301 in England or 03003 038 268 in Wales. In Scotland, possible cases should be reported to the local field services office.