This experiment is part of the Wildlife Health and Disease Challenge Grant Challenge Grant. Browse more projects

What kills elephants at waterholes in Zimbabwe?

Raised of $4,828 Goal
Funded on 9/30/20
Successfully Funded
  • $4,858
  • 100%
  • Funded
    on 9/30/20

About This Project

Botswana recently experienced severe, highly publicized mortality of elephant, which authorities attribute to a natural toxin. Neighboring northwest Zimbabwe, including Hwange National Park, has a similar climate and topography and holds the country’s largest elephant population. In the past, elephant have also died suddenly at waterholes in Hwange. This project aims to test seasonal waterholes for natural toxins to predict episodes of mortality and better manage this problem.

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What is the context of this research?

Zimbabwe and Botswana hold approximately 60% of remaining African savannah elephants. From March-May 2020 at least 350 elephant in Botswana died of a mysterious neurological condition attributed to a natural toxin. Most of these elephant died close to seasonal waterholes (pans). Similar, but fewer deaths have occurred close to pans in northwest Zimbabwe, but the animals are usually found too late to collect useful samples from the carcasses.

One hypothesis is that the ‘natural toxin’ may originate from harmful algal blooms (HABs) of cyanobacteria in the water in pans; also that elephant may have an unusual sensitivity to such a toxin. HABs occur in these pans because of the high organic content of the water deposited by elephant and other species that utilize this water source.

What is the significance of this project?

Finding toxins in these water bodies could provide clues on the emergence of this disease, which has the potential to threaten this critical population of an iconic African species. Zimbabwe and Botswana have limited financial and technical resources and neither country can do sophisticated analyses for natural environmental toxins: for wildlife and people. Sending samples for testing at international laboratories is almost impossible because of cost, import restrictions and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

This project would establish a relatively novel and simple diagnostic approach that is feasible in Zimbabwe and doesn’t require access to fresh carcasses. Such analysis should give a semi-quantitative assessment to authorities of whether pans are likely to prove lethal to elephant.

What are the goals of the project?

This project will set up PCR testing for genes coding for cyanobacterial toxins at the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust Laboratory. Water and sediment samples will be collected in northwest Zimbabwe, both from pans continuously fed by borehole water and filled only by seasonal rains. At least 25 pans will be sampled during the dry season (October) and again after the rains (December/January). If available, fresh stomach contents of any elephant found dead close to such pans will be collected.

This analysis will determine if these genes are present in the pans and whether these is a difference between dry and wet season presence. Results will be correlated with the presence of elephant carcasses at the pans and also if deaths of fish, also seen in past seasons in Hwange, have occurred.


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Sample collection

This will enable travel to seasonal waterholes (pans) in the target area to collect the necessary water and sediment samples from at least 25 such water-bodies on two separate occasions. It will also cover Parks fees and the cost of sample containers, cold storage and the transport to the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust Laboratory.

PCR reagents

Includes construction and shipping of key PCR probes (primers), DNA extraction kits and tubes, mastermix. These are essential for the laboratory testing.

Endorsed by

Having worked with both Chris and Laura, they are the most qualified people to carry out this research. Chris is a highly experienced and respected wildlife veterinarian. Laura is a veterinarian with training in disease epidemiology. Building capacity of local scientists and laboratories is key to addressing wildlife health issues. This project will create the ability for rapid detection of cyanobacteria and allow wildlife managers to intervene to prevent deaths, especially of threatened species, including elephants.
I have known Dr Chris Foggin and he is one my mentors. Dr Foggin is one of the most outstanding wildlife veterinarians and pathologists in Africa. He runs the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust Veterinary Lab with qualified lab technicians and the project will add to the valuable forensic and disease diagnostic ability and service they provide to Zimabwe and the KAZA region. Dr Foggin is also a member of the Animal Health Working Group of KAZA. I fully endorse this project

Project Timeline

By 31st October, 2020 – collect dry, hot-season samples

By 30th November, 2020 – order and import essential reagents

By 31st January, 2021 – collect wet season samples

By 31st March, 2021 – complete analyses

By 31st May, 2021 – complete project report

Aug 31, 2020

Project Launched

Oct 31, 2020

Collect dry, hot-season samples

Nov 30, 2020

Order and import essential reagents

Jan 31, 2021

Collect wet season samples

Mar 31, 2021

Complete analyses

Meet the Team

Chris M Foggin
Chris M Foggin
Laura Rosen
Laura Rosen
Patricia Pritchard
Patricia Pritchard

Team Bio

The Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust Laboratory, completed in 2012, provides 'frontline' diagnostic, and later forensic, services for wildlife in the region, also for livestock, which is in contact with wildlife. Laboratory Technologist, Trish Pritchard, trained in South Africa, specializing in pathology. After working in the UK and South Africa, she joined the VFWT Laboratory, and has since undertaken courses in Molecular Biology, in which she has a keen interest.

Chris M Foggin

I am Zimbabwean, Wildlife Veterinarian who did my DPhil on the Epidemiology of Rabies and Rabies-related viruses in Zimbabwe, prior to establishing the Wildlife Veterinary Unit within the Zimbabwe Department of Veterinary Services, of which I was head for 22 years. Thereafter I joined the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust as their wildlife veterinarian and laboratory director, from where I monitor the occurrence of wildlife disease in the area. I have worked extensively in the field, especially on veterinary management of rhino, and also directed the Malilangwe Course on Chemical and Physical Restraint of African Wildlife for over a decade. I have a special interest in diseases of free-ranging elephant.

Laura Rosen

I am a veterinary epidemiologist specializing in wildlife. I began working on wildlife health projects based in Africa as a vet student over 10 years ago and am passionate about contributing to wildlife conservation and One Health in southern Africa. Part of my PhD research on tuberculosis in wildlife brought me to Zimbabwe, where I studied working elephants in coordination with the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust. I have been hooked since, continuing to volunteer with the Trust and even becoming registered as a vet in Zimbabwe. I am currently based in the US, working on animal health research in Africa and Ireland, and in light of COVID-19, I am also working with a state public health department on pandemic response.

Project Backers

  • 92Backers
  • 100%Funded
  • $4,858Total Donations
  • $52.80Average Donation
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