In 1995, Kumari, at 16 month-old Asian elephant died after a short illness at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Zoo pathologists, Drs. Richard Montali and Laura Richman, soon discovered that a previously unidentified herpesvirus, later called Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) was responsible.
Zoo pathologists, veterinarians, researchers, zoos and private owners have all come together to investigate the transmission and epidemiology, develop better treatments, and create a possible vaccine to save elephants from this too often fatal disease. As in any instance when a totally unknown disease is first identified, many initial assumptions were suggested and proved to be dead ends. The disease has nothing to do with Asian and African elephants being housed together, or transported. This is not a disease found only in Western institutions. It is a natural herpesvirus of elephants, and is most likely found in all elephants. (Most species, including humans, have herpesviruses associated with them that have evolved over millions of years to co-exist with their host.) In fact, Asian Elephant Support has helped fund Dr. Arun Zachariah, professor and field veterinarian at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Science University, Southern India, who first confirmed instances of EEHV in wild populations. He has become a resource for EEHV testing and information for elephant colleagues in other Southeast Asian countries.
The numbers to date are not only horrific but represent dashed hopes for the life of a new calf and broken hearts among their caregivers.
These are confirmed numbers:
North America (back to about 1980): 34 cases, 10 survivors, 24 fatalities = 71% fatality rate.
Europe: 25 deaths from EEHV of 43 total deaths, so 60% of all Asian calf deaths – the largest single cause of death of elephants born in Europe since 1995.
Asian Range Countries: In human care: 74 cases documented, 7 survivors, 67 fatalities = 90% fatality rate. In the wild, 12 fatal cases documented. The actual numbers are probably much higher as testing is just starting up; many more cases are suspected but haven’t been tested yet. Also, the cases in the wild are usually missed because no one is there to see it and collect samples, although Dr. Zachariah has shown that it is possible to follow wild elephant herds and conduct field necropsies.
There is some amazing talent and experience at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, John Hopkins University, and Baylor College of Medicine – to name a few – that are dedicated to saving today’s elephants that become victims of EEHV. In addition, many of the zoos and private owners are fervent supporters of this research and good science. We applaud and appreciate their efforts on behalf of all Asian elephants.
As we are Asian Elephant Support, our next newsletter will focus on EEHV in Asian range countries. We will look more closely at the work that needs to be done: the laboratory requirements and training needs that so desperately beg for attention and support. Please be sure to look for how AES plans to give assistance and, as always, it is with our thanks for your support that we are able to do this work.