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Herpes virus kills 2nd young elephant at Indianapolis Zoo

Kalina, an African elephant and her mother Kubwa.
(Fred Cate/Indianapolis Zoo)

Just a week after the death of their 6-year-old African elephant, nyah, the Indianapolis Zoo delivered a sad message: The other youngest African elephant, the 8-year-old Kalina, died on Tuesday (26 March).

Both the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) may have died of elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV), though zoo officials have yet to get to all of the tests back to confirm the diagnosis. On Saturday (23 March), Kalina shown symptoms similar to that in nyah. A few days before her death, nyah showed signs of “abdominal discomfort,” but she was still eating and drinking, the zoo reported on its Facebook page.

“We are devastated to announce that a second African elephant in our herd, Kalina, died earlier today,” the zoo said on Facebook. [Elephant Images: Largest Land Animals]

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EEHV, which comes in several types, is responsible for half the deaths of young elephants in zoos, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

Like other herpes viruses, EEHV can go into a dormant state within its host, but scientists do not know where in an elephant the body EEHV hides itself, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo. For whatever reason, the virus can come out of hiding and circulate through the bloodstream, causing the bleeding and even death.

There is no vaccine against the virus and no warning signs of when it is in the idle state, the zoo said. Scientists don’t even know why the virus suddenly comes to rest, to be aggressive to infect a young elephant.

“Blood tests of both Kalina and nyah showed a high level of EEHV,” Judy Palermo, senior manager, Public Relations at the zoo, said Live Science. “The Full necropsy results will not be in a few weeks, but they indicated multiple organ failures caused by the elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus.”

The virus is more common in the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). It seems to be tolerated by adult elephants, but is often fatal for young animals of the African and Asian elephants. These young elephants seem to be unable to mount an effective immune response against the virus, scientists reported in 2018 in the Journal of Virology.

“Most of the elephants are able to fight against the virus and survive as it comes out of the wait,” the Smithsonian said. “Calves seem most susceptible to EEHV disease after they are weaned, at a time when they are not protected by their mother’s antibodies.”

Hundreds of responses have poured in to the zoo’s Facebook post about the death of Kalina, many express how much they will miss the young elephant. While the human zoo-goers can feel sad, Kalina and nyah survival of the herd members may be hit the hardest.

And the zoo made sure to acknowledge that.

“We know that elephants mourn the loss of a herd member. And it was important for each of our elephants to see and the time they needed with Kalina and nyah after they died,” zoo said on Facebook. Both Kalina’s mother Kubwa and nyah the mother of Ivory are still in the zoo, Palermo said.

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Originally published on Live Science.

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