Third elephant at Dublin Zoo tests positive for deadly virus

Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus has already killed two young female members of herd

Dublin Zoo's seven-year-old elephant Zinda: died from Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) days after another elephant at the zoo died from the same disease. Photograph: Dublin Zoo

A third elephant at Dublin Zoo has tested positive for a deadly virus that has killed two young members of the small herd.

The zoo’s director, Christoph Schwitzer, said the fight against the virus, which he described as “the devil”, is continuing.

While blood tests on 17-year-old Asha confirmed she has Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV), days after seven-year-old Zinda and eight-year-old Avani died from the same disease, she is not manifesting any symptoms, the zoo said.

The other elephants in the Kaziranga Forest Trail area of the zoo, including the bull elephant Aung Bo, who moved to Ireland from Chester Zoo in England last month, 40-year-old Dina and 10-year-old Samiya, have so far tested negative for the virus.

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EEHV is an unpredictable and fatal virus affecting young elephants in the wild and under human care. It has a mortality rate of up to 85 pert cent. It is not transferable between species and poses no health risk to humans.

“It is such an ongoing and fluid situation and we just don’t know the outcome [but] the odds are so much against us with this virus,” Dr Schwitzer told The Irish Times.

The zoo is hoping that as a 17-year-old, Asha will have some level of antibodies in her immune system.

Second elephant dies in days at Dublin Zoo from viral infectionOpens in new window ]

What is the virus that has killed two Dublin Zoo elephants, with a third testing positive?Opens in new window ]

Young elephants up to the age of nine are particularly vulnerable “but it doesn’t stop there and it can affect all and can kill all the elephants as well so we are fighting the devil,” Dr Schwitzer said.

“We are awaiting test results from a laboratory in the Netherlands which we’re hoping to get back in the next 48 hours to tell us what the antibody status of Asha is.”

He said the other elephants in the herd had been grieving the loss of their two family members. “It is heartbreaking to see but what we do need to do is leave a dead elephant in there for a while until they have all said goodbye to her and we wait for that to happen,” Dr Schwitzer said.

“That’s very important so that they know what’s going on and that a member of the herd is not just gone for whatever reason that they can’t comprehend. At least they can make their peace with their grief. They are in a different mood, it’s all very very sombre.”

Asked how the virus had entered the habitat, he said it is very similar to a human herpesvirus and can lie dormant in animals for many years.

“We know that it was in our herd because we’ve had events before. One female actually had it for a little while and it was not fatal in that instance but we know that it was latent in the herd as it is in most elephants in zoos and also in the wild,” he said.

He stressed while the deaths and ongoing crisis are tragic for the animals, their carers and the public, the zoo “will do everything we possibly can to learn about the virus and we are all trying to work on a vaccine”. He said Chester Zoo and Houston Zoo in Texas are leading international efforts against it and Dublin Zoo has contributed to that with samples.

Dublin Zoo veterinarian Emma Flynn said the medical team was doing what they could to help Asha in terms of antiviral treatments and they were “a bit more hopeful she will actually be able to fight this with some help from us. But we hope that her immune system will actually get into gear and fight this.”

She said the virus does not go away overnight “and we can’t eradicate it”. It could take some months until it is not causing clinical disease.

After an elephant has died from the virus it is disposed of through incineration, but only after a postmortem, Ms Flynn said.

“We just have to be really careful with bio security but this is not a virus that can affect any other species.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor