Two young African elephants died at an Indiana zoo within one week of each other, apparently due to an extremely deadly elephant virus that has no cure and for which there is no vaccine.
Kalina, 8, and Nyah, 6, both suddenly fell ill at the Indianapolis Zoo after showing signs of the elephant herpesvirus, known as elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV). Kalina died on Tuesday, while Nyah died on March 19, zoo officials said.
“I can’t imagine anything much worse than what we’re dealing with right now,” a visibly upset zoo president, Rob Shumaker, said at a press conference. “It was very fast, it was very unexpected … It’s about as difficult as it gets.”
Each elephant was dead within 48 hours of showing signs of the virus, which can cause fatal hemorrhagic disease in the animals. Though both Asian and African elephants can contract the virus, it’s far more common among Asian elephants, Shumaker said.
Zoo officials said it remains unknown how the elephants contracted the virus, but that the strain was likely dormant or latent within them, since most Asian and African elephants are believed to carry EEHV.
The virus has been responsible for about half of the deaths of young elephants in zoos, according to the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory, which is part of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.
“For reasons unknown, an elephant herpesvirus can come out of latency and circulate throughout the bloodstream, causing disease. This is the only time when a herpesvirus can be readily detected in blood samples,” according to the laboratory’s website. “Reliable tests are not yet available to detect a latent infection. Most elephants are able to fight the virus and survive when it comes out of latency. Calves appear to be most susceptible to EEHV disease after they have been weaned, at a time when they are not protected by their mother’s antibodies.”
Because EEHV typically affects young elephants, Shumaker said the zoo’s six other elephants ― the youngest of which is 13 ― are likely not at risk, though he said the zoo is being “overly cautious” just in case.
EEHV does not pose a health risk to humans, who have their own strains of herpesviruses.
The zoo’s other elephants and its human employees are taking the two deaths extremely hard, Shumaker said.
We know that elephants grieve. They are intensely social, and we have seen some pretty dramatic responses from the rest of our herd when the other individuals died.
Elephants are extremely intelligent and social animals known to exhibit mourning over their dead. This can include visiting the bodies for long periods of time, as well as burying them under leaves and twigs. They’re also capable of shedding tears when emotional.
The zoo, in a statement posted to Facebook, said that the herd was able to see Nyah after her death “to help them understand why she will not be with them anymore.”
“This is probably just as difficult for our elephants,” Shumaker said. “We know that elephants grieve. They are intensely social, and we have seen some pretty dramatic responses from the rest of our herd when the other individuals died. It’s very tough on them as well, so grief is everywhere right now in our elephant building.”