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Projects in India

Emerging Diseases and Conservation in India (2010 - 2012)

Chris Reifschneider

We are pleased to tell you about our involvement in a very important research project and to tell you a story of teamwork that AES believes is so crucial to the future of Asian elephants.

The goals of this research project are to identify emerging diseases and their prevalence in the largest global population of Asian elephants, and to determine the impact of these diseases for long-term conservation. These goals will be met through (a) assessing health-related aspects of the free-ranging elephant population (for example, stress, morbidity, and mortality), (b) evaluating the presence of infectious and non-infectious diseases and their dynamics in the elephant population, and (c) identifying risk factors and possible solutions to mitigate impact.

Charging bull in study area (95% of males are tuskers in this area)

Charging bull in study area (95% of males are tuskers in this area)

The study area is located in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) in Southern India, and occupies parts of three states: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. The study area has an estimated 3900 to 4800 elephants. This population is genetically quite distinct and unique in that 95% of males are tuskers, compared to only 5-7% of males in the Sri Lanka population and 50% of males in the Eastern Indian population.

Elephant herd in degraded and fragmented habitat in summer

Elephant herd in degraded and fragmented habitat in summer

Many studies in the Nilgiri Biosphere show the elephant population in this region under ever increasing pressure, with degraded and fragmented habitat posing the biggest threat. Summer forest fires coupled with delayed monsoon seasons can result in greater migration and thus increased instances of human/elephant conflict.

Adult elephants are not vulnerable to top predators like tigers and leopards. Thus it is important to study the disease dynamics in this species. Anthrax, Elephant Herpes Virus, and tuberculosis are among the diseases identified, clearly indicating the necessity for an understanding of the emerging diseases in the population.

The research is being led by two veterinarians highly experienced in elephant diseases:

  • Dr. Arun Zachariah, Assistant Forest Veterinary Officer of the Wildlife Disease Research Laboratory, Department of Forest and Wildlife, Kerala, India.
  • Dr. N. Kalaivanan, Assistant Forest Veterinary Surgeon, Department of Forest and Wildlife, Tamil Nadu, India

These two investigators bring a wealth of experience to this project. In addition, international advisors will partner to advise on ecology and genetics of wildlife diseases.

Asian Elephant Support is excited to play a part in helping this research get underway. In addition to AES financial contribution, this was our first grant submission to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Asian Elephant Conservation Fund. AES helped write the grant application and will serve as the grant administrators for this project. The USFWS and AES have provided funding for project support staff, transportation, research station costs, lab analysis fees, and medical supplies. The initially funded study period will run for one year.

We would be remiss if we did not express our sincere appreciation to Heidi Riddle, Riddle's Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary, for bringing this project to our attention, and to the staff at USFWS for their patience and assistance in securing this funding for Drs. Zachariah and Kalaivanan. Working together we can make a difference for the future of the Asian elephant.

It will be exciting to follow the findings of this important field work, and we will share updates as they are available. Please contact us to put your name on our email list for news, and please consider making a donation now so that we can remain in a position to help other projects that need support in their work for the future of Asian elephants.

Thank you for your Support!

Photos provided by Dr. Arun Zachariah.

Fast forward to November 2012…

Two years of intense field and laboratory work have brought to the forefront new observations about diseases in wild Asian elephant populations. Several diseases were identified during the course of this study.

One of the diseases identified is the Endotheliotropic Elephant Herpes Virus (EEHV). This study provides the first report of EEHV in free ranging Asian elephants. Although only a few cases were confirmed, the findings of EEHV in free ranging elephants, and the scientific data generated, can help to identify the cause of EEHV emergence in captive populations. This research may also shed light on the evolution of the virus, which has a high mortality rate in elephants.

Like all good research, we have a better understanding of certain issues, but have been left with a long list of questions. In this case, there are serious questions that can and need to be addressed. Even these initial findings will impact our efforts to conserve Asian elephants.

More research is needed on how the free ranging elephant population has been affected by emerging diseases such as EEHV. As this free ranging population shares habitat with captive elephants, livestock, and human settlements, there is an important need for long-term wildlife health monitoring of the elephant populations. There is also a need to determine the extent that environmental factors, such as sharing space with livestock, contribute to the emergence of disease of Asian elephants.

Knowledge and good science represent the real hope for the future of this magnificent species. Obviously, there is much more work to be done. To this end, AES is continuing to partner with scientists, veterinarians, and other organizations concerned about Asian elephant health. AES will focus support on continuing the study of EEHV in Asian elephant populations around the world.

Each life is precious, not only to the population, but to the future of the species. Please consider making a donation to AES today to help support additional research and efforts that are needed to protect the next generation of Asian elephants.

With your help, we are improving the lives of elephants and mahouts across Asia.