A deadly virus has swept through Zurich Zoo, killing three Asian elephants in a month and leaving experts at a loss as to how to stop its spread.
The zoo, which overlooks Switzerland’s largest city, now has just five of the majestic creatures roaming its 11,000-square-foot elephant enclosure.
The two-year-old bull Umesh became the first victim of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) at the end of June, followed a few days later by his eight-year-old sister Omysha.
Ruwani, a five-year-old female from a second matriarchal herd, also died last Saturday.
They succumbed to the herpes virus, which causes internal bleeding and organ failure in young Asian elephants.
In captivity, this virus is “the leading cause of death in elephants between the ages of two and eight,” zoo curator Pascal Marty told AFP.
The virus is also known to kill elephants in the wild, he said, but “it’s a little harder to spot.”
– last goodbye –
The herpes virus is latent in almost all elephants, both in the wild and in captivity, but in some cases it can become fatal suddenly, killing its victims within a few days.
“We still don’t know why it’s happening and when it’s happening,” Marty said.
The zoo’s five remaining Asian elephants – all adults – were allowed to spend a few hours gathered around the remains of their young family members and companions.
Marty said it’s important to give the animals “enough time to say goodbye.”
“It’s very difficult to tell if they’re sad or not because sadness is human,” he said.
But he stressed that because elephants are very social animals, it’s vital that they have the ability to tell when a member of their herd is gone.
“It’s very important for them to be closed to understand that this person is no longer part of our group.”
Less than a week after the recent death, the giant mammals appear to be nonchalantly going about their daily activities, from swimming in a large pond to foraging for food.
They stick their trunks into holes where a computer program randomly distributes carrots and dried grass for the animals to roam and forage, just like in the wild.
– Emphasize –
“It’s kind of sad, especially because I think the elephants have enough space here in Zurich,” said frequent visitor Mauro Muller, 29.
Zurich Zoo opened its new elephant enclosure in 2014 and offers its herds six times more space than before.
But eight years later, the zoo admitted it was going through “difficult days”.
“It is particularly frustrating that we are powerless against this virus, despite the best veterinary care from the University Animal Clinic in Zurich,” said zoo director Severin Dressen in a statement.
There is no vaccine, and while antivirals exist, they are not very effective, and even when elephants are treated quickly, only about a third of them survive.
“The epidemiology of the disease is still not clear,” said Bhaskar Choudhury, a veterinarian and a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Asian Elephant Specialist Group.
“The virus is shed intermittently by adults, but with increasing frequency during periods of stress, which is believed to be the source of infection for young calves,” he told AFP.
“The IUCN is very concerned about global mortality in captivity and even more so in the wild.”
– “Ambassador” –
Asian elephants, which can live up to 60 years, are listed by the IUCN as an endangered species, with only about 50,000 remaining in the wild.
Deforestation, urban sprawl and agricultural development have robbed them of their natural habitat, while poaching and the illegal ivory trade pose additional threats to many herds.
“Populations are declining almost everywhere,” Marty said, adding that for conservation reasons, it’s also really important to have good, healthy populations of Asian elephants in Europe.
Zurich Zoo has one of the most modern elephant enclosures in the world and wants to continue its breeding mission.
He described the elephants in the park as “partners” in educating people about the problems wild elephants face.
“Elephants here at the zoo play an important role as ambassadors of their own kind,” he said.
#Deadly #elephant #virus #spreading #Zurich #Zoo