Second African elephant dies at Indianapolis Zoo in a week

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Indianapolis Zoo officials confirmed the death of a second African elephant Tuesday.

The zoo suspects 8-year-old Kalina died of elephant endotheliotropic herpesviris (EEHV), which is typically found in Asian elephants and is considered rare in African elephants.

Last Tuesday, the zoo announced 6-year-old African elephant Nyah passed away after a short illness, which is also suspected to be EEHV. Zoo officials say the elephant started showing signs of abdominal discomfort on Sunday and veterinarians began care immediately.

Indianapolis Zoo President Dr. Rob Schumaker said Tuesday his staff is devastated by the loss, but he's proud of the care they provided.

"We've been working around the clock to save these two individuals, and our zoo family is devastated. Both of the elephants were born and raised here, and words cannot express the emotional impact this has had on our staff...our staff has performed heroically in the service of these individuals, and our hearts are broken."

Scientists aren't sure how the disease spreads from elephants to elephants, but they know it does not spread to humans.

"EEHV is a deadly virus found in elephants both in the wild and in zoos and young elephants are at greatest risk," Shumaker said. "I’d like to make sure you understand that the virus only affects elephants.  It poses no risk to humans or any other animals.

"EEHV is a type of herpes virus that can cause fatal hemorrhagic disease in elephants and it strikes without warning. It’s one of the most devestatring viral infections in elephants worldwide, mostly commonly found in Asians.

"There is no vaccine or way to prevent this very aggressive disease. Veterinarians have not been able to determine why EEHV becomes active. We do not know what caused this to become active in Nyah and Kalina so suddenly."

Zoo officials are now monitoring the rest of the six-elephant herd, but no symptoms have been observed. They'be been working with experts around the world since Nyah stated showing symptoms. Shumaker said the other elephants are outside the "critical window" for the disease.

The zoo provided this set of questions and answers about the deaths:

What happened to Nyah and Kalina?

We will not know for sure until we receive all the lab and pathology reports, but we believe that Nyah had multiple organ failures brought on by elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, or EEHV. EEHV is a type of herpesvirus that can cause a highly fatal hemorrhagic disease in mostly young elephants in the wild and in human care. Although fatalities from EEHV are much more common in Asian elephants, there have been deaths in African elephants due to complications associated with EEHV. Days later, when Kalina started showing the same initial signs of discomfort as Nyah, The Zoo’s veterinarians began aggressive treatment immediately with antibiotic and antiviral medications to treat for EEHV and other possible causes of the symptoms.

What is EEHV? 

Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) is a type of herpesvirus of various strains that can cause fatal hemorrhagic disease in elephants – there are multiple strains of the virus and all result in high fatality rates. EEHV is one of the most devastating viral infectious diseases in elephants worldwide but is most commonly found in Asian elephants. It occurs in elephants in the wild as well as those in human care such as in sanctuaries and zoos. EEHV can strike without warning.

EEHV is not common in African elephants with only four confirmed prior cases in zoos, two of which were fatal. There are extensive protocols in place guiding the treatment of the disease in Asian elephants and we used many of those protocols to guide our treatment of Kalina. All of the elephants at the Indianapolis Zoo have been tested for EEHV and until now, none of them tested positive.

Was Nyah treated for EEHV?

Nyah was not treated for EEHV, which in African elephants is rare. The progression of her illness was acute with death occurring within less than 48 hours of staff initially observing symptoms that mimicked colic. The presence of positive EEHV was identified postmortem.

How did Nyah and Kalina contract the virus? 

Scientists and veterinarians have not been able to determine how EEHV is transmitted or why it becomes suddenly active from its dormant phase, and we do not know what caused the virus to suddenly become active in Nyah and Kalina. It is widely believed that most Asian and African elephants both in zoological environments and in the wild have been exposed and carry EEHV. In most elephants, EEHV remains dormant with no signs of infection. All of the elephants at the Indianapolis Zoo have been tested for EEHV in the past, and until now, none of them have tested positive. It is likely that many of the elephants at the Indianapolis Zoo have been EEHV carriers and have passed the virus onto their offspring or each other. Nyah showed signs of discomfort on Sunday March 17 and died the morning of March 19. Kalina first presented symptoms on March 23 and died late morning on March 26.

Is EEHV contagious? 

This disease can only affect elephants and is not infectious to humans or other animals. EEHV is likely contagious among elephants but scientists who have been studying the virus for several years do not know definitively how the virus transmits one elephant to another.

When did Kalina show signs of Illness? 

On Saturday, March 23, 8-year-old elephant Kalina started showing symptoms like Nyah’s. Our veterinarians began aggressive treatment immediately with antibiotic and antiviral medications. Our veterinarians communicated with experts worldwide, and the full resources of the community of zoos were directed toward her care. Despite these efforts, Kalina died just before noon March 26.

How is EEHV Prevented?

At this point, there is no vaccine or other ways to prevent the disease. We do know that elephants identified early with the disease and treated in the early stages of the disease have the best chances of survival.

Is there a danger to any of the other elephants in the herd?

There is limited information about EEHV in African elephants, however it appears that EEHV poses a greater risk to young elephants, typically those who have weaned from their mothers up till approximately 8 years of age. The surviving members of the zoo’s elephant herd is older and past the younger critical age range for the virus. EEHV can lie dormant and undetectable and never develop into disease.

What are you doing to manage the rest of the herd?

Our elephant care team has taken blood samples of all the elephants to monitor for early signs of the disease. If changes are detected, we will begin immediate and aggressive treatment. None of the other elephants in the herd are showing any signs of the disease.

Do elephants die of EEHVs in the wild or is this something that only happens in zoos? 

EEHV does not discriminate. EEHV has a greater impact on Asian elephants than African elephants, but its prevalence or severity does not appear to be different from animals that live in the wild versus animals that live in the care of humans such as in sanctuaries and zoos.

Does this virus affect both Asian and African elephants?

It does, but it is much more common in Asian elephants. It is found both in the wild and in human care such as sanctuaries and zoos.

Will you change the way the Indianapolis Zoo monitors for EEHV?

Yes, we will use the existing protocols for Asian elephants to inform our decisions in going forward.

How many elephants remain at the Indianapolis Zoo? 

The Indianapolis Zoo has six African elephants. Including 37-year-old Ivory, 13-year-old Zahara, 43-year-old Tombi, 52-year-old Sophi, 43-year-old Kubwa and the only male in the herd is 14-year-old Kedar.

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