Two African elephants born and raised at the Indianapolis Zoo have died in a week. Both elephants had signs of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), zoo officials said.
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Rob Shumaker was visibly emotional as he spoke to reporters behind a lectern inside the White River Gardens at the Indianapolis Zoo.
“We’ve had a really difficult day,” the president of the Indianapolis Zoo began.
Kalina, an 8-year-old African elephant at the zoo, died Tuesday morning. Her death comes just one week after Nyah, a 6-year-old African elephant at the zoo, also died. They were the two youngest elephants in the zoo’s herd.
Shumaker said both elephants tested for high levels of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, or EEHV. It’s a type of herpesvirus that can cause fatal hemorrhagic disease in elephants, he said. It can strike without warning, there is no vaccine for it, and there is no way to prevent it.
“Our zoo family is devastated,” he said.
The Indianapolis Zoo President Dr. Rob Shumaker holds a press conference after two Zoo Elephants die, Tuesday, March 26, 2019.
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Humans and other species cannot contract the virus, which only affects elephants, Shumaker said.
When EEHV kills, it is very fast and very severe. Both young elephants at the Indianapolis Zoo had mild stomachaches and loss of appetite, and both were dead within 48 hours. This is typical of the disease, which has an 85 percent mortality rate.
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What is elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus?
EEHV was discovered when a young Asian elephant, Kumari, died at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 1995. Since then, scientists have studied strains of EEHV and found them in nearly all elephants, both in the wild and in human care.
Scientists have identified 14 genetically distinct strains of EEHV, some of which seem to be harmless, but all of which can lie dormant and undetectable for years. Like many other herpesviruses, elephants can test positive for the virus but exhibit no symptoms or ill effects.
Before the Indianapolis deaths, there were 27 total EEHV deaths in Asian elephants and two in African elephants in North America, experts told IndyStar.
It is the leading cause for young juvenile Asian elephants in North America, said Paul Ling, associate professor or virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine.
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The virus is spread through the mucosal secretions, Ling said. That could include saliva or other mucosal tissues, he said.
Kalina and Nyah were still in the highest at-risk period for the disease. That period is considered to be between 1 and 8 years of age, said Erin Latimer, the laboratory manager of the National Elephant Herpes Laboratory at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Both Latimer and Ling study EEHV in elephants.
“It has occurred in some teens and even in a few adults,” she said. “But usually the at-risk (age) is 1 to 8 years old. We think that once they’ve gotten older than that, they’ve probably been exposed and had to go latent, and that they’re not as at risk.”
But adult elephants also have contracted EEHV.
“There’s no age at which we can say an elephant is not at risk,” Latimer said.
Of the six elephants left in the Indianapolis zoo’s herd, the youngest is 14, Shumaker said. Those elephants are taking anti-viral medication out of an abundance of caution, he said.
“Sometimes, even with early detection and the best veterinary care, we’re still losing the calves,” Latimer said. “You can’t play a blame game. Even with the best care, the virus still can get out of control.”
While EEHV has killed more than 100 young elephants, usually the elephants who die don’t even have the same strain of EEHV — even when they are related and even when they live in very close physical and social contact.
There is no cure for EEHV. Researchers are working on developing a vaccine to improve the survival rate, Ling said.
Indianapolis Zoo’s elephants are grieving
Not only are the zoo staff grieving the deaths of Kalina and Nyah, Shumaker said, but the remaining elephants are also experiencing grief.
“This is probably just as difficult for our elephants. We know that elephants grieve. They are intensely social,” he said. “And we’ve seen some pretty dramatic responses from the rest of our herd.”
The zoo said all of its elephants have been tested for EEHV, and until now, none of them have tested positive. He said the virus hit the elephants quickly, unexpectedly and aggressively.
“I can’t imagine anything worse than what we’re dealing with right now,” Shumaker said. “It’s about as difficult as it gets.”
Brittany P.G. Steff contributed. Steff is a freelance science writer who writes about conservation biology.
Andrew Clark is Facebook editor for IndyStar. Call him at 317-444-6484 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Clarky_Tweets.
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