Blow to breeding & research plans
ELLENTON, Florida––The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation on January 25, 2016 lost a baby elephant named Mike to elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus––a blow to Ringling ambitions both in captive elephant breeding and in disease research.
Birthed on June 27, 2013, Mike was among 26 Asian elephants born at the 200-acre Ringling compound since 1995, one of the few U.S. locations to have had much captive breeding success. Mike died five days before the former Woodland Park Zoo elephant Chai, 37, was found dead in the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant yard, eight months after her controversial transfer to become part of the Oklahoma City Zoo captive breeding program.
80% to 90% mortality
Both Chai’s baby Hansa (1994-2000) and Malee (2011-2015), the first and only elephant born at the Oklahoma City Zoo, also succumbed to elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus.
“Both wild and captive elephants die from EEHV,” Ringling said in a prepared statement. The Ringling Center “is working with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory,” at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., “to develop treatments for infected elephants,” the statement continued.
Calves are most vulnerable
“This insidious elephant-specific disease has a mortality rate estimated between 80% and 90%, and has been the cause of death of approximately 25% of the Asian elephants born in North America since 1978,” Ringling said.
Adult elephants often live for decades after exposure to elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, but “calves appear to be most susceptible to EEHV disease after they have been weaned,” the Ringling statement continued, “at a time when they are not protected by their mother’s antibodies.”
Said Ringling director of veterinary care Ashley Settles to WFTV, “No one knows why the virus manifests this way in some elephants, since most elephants harbor the virus and never become ill. Mike only began to show the slightest of symptoms on January 23, 2016 and was eating and drinking well as late as January 24, but the illness progressed very rapidly. As soon as symptoms began, we started treating him, but by January 25 there was nothing more anyone could do to prevent his passing.”
41 elephants left
Mike’s death left Ringling with 41 elephants: 28 remaining at the Ringling Center, two on breeding loans to zoos, and eleven still touring with the three Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus traveling shows.
The Ringling Center and Ringling circus are wholly owned by Feld Entertainment, also owner of the Marvel Universe Live, Disney on Ice, and Monster Jam traveling shows.
Feld executive vice president and show producer Alana Feld on January 11, 2016 announced that the eleven elephants remaining on the road “will be permanently retired” by May 2016, Associated Press writer Tamara Lush reported.
Instead of performing, the Ringling elephants are to join an ongoing cancer research project, which has already identified a cancer-fighting gene shared by humans and elephants called TP-53. The gene functions differently in humans and elephants, however: it helps the human body to try to repair damaged cells, while in elephants it simply eradicates potentially cancerous cells.
Zoo elephant imports approved
Mike died two days after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approved an application from the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas, for permission to import 18 elephants.
The zoos “will each get six elephants under an agreement announced last fall,” reported Daniel Salazar of the Wichita Eagle. “The 15 females and three males will come from a wildlife trust in Swaziland, a southeastern African monarchy sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique.
“The Sedgwick County Zoo is scheduled to open its Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit on Memorial Day weekend,” Salazar noted.
“Seventy-five scientists, conservationists and animal welfare advocates wrote a letter opposing the federal approval,” Salazar mentioned. “Some groups sued unsuccessfully to block the last elephant import from Swaziland,” which in 2003 sent 11 elephants to the San Diego Zoo and the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, but Salazar found that none of the 2003 plaintiffs appear to be likely to challenge the 2016 import.
May complicate herpesvirus situation
The new arrivals may further complicate the already complex elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus situation.
Posted Texas A&M University professor, in her capacity as infectious disease moderator for the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) electronic information network, “Current research indicates that the elephant-specific herpesvirus may have been in elephant populations for tens of millions of years, just as human herpesviruses have been in human populations. Since this is a naturally occurring disease, every elephant in the wild and in human care probably carries one or more forms of elephant herpesvirus within them.
“To date,” Garland said, “scientists have identified 14 genetically different elephant herpesviruses, five of which are known to cause hemorrhagic disease. The viruses found in symptomatic elephants at different zoos and other institutions are genetically distinct, which means that they are not all the same strain spread by the transfers of elephants between and among zoos,” and also may not all have the same treatment.
“Current antiviral treatments suppress EEHV,” Garland added, “and elephants can potentially recover if diagnosed and treated early. Of the elephants who have been treated, the success rate with anti-viral therapy against EEHV has been about 40%. To date, antiviral drugs have been used successfully in treating nine Asian elephants in North America. Seven of the most recent 8 elephants to get sick from EEHV have recovered with treatment.”