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Asian elephant calf dies of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus

ABQ BioPark heartbroken at the loss of Thorn: “Everybody loved him.”

December 25, 2021 - Thorn, a three-year-old male elephant at the ABQ BioPark Zoo, died in the early morning hours on Christmas Day from elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV). BioPark staff began treating Thorn immediately after traces of the virus were detected in a routine blood test on December 15. This virus causes hemorrhagic disease that can be fatal for young elephants. EEHV is the leading cause of death for Asian elephant calves and can strike elephants in the wild and in human care.

“Our whole team is devastated by the passing of our young Thorn,” said Stephanie Stowell, ABQ BioPark Director. “EEHV is a terrible disease that impacts Asian elephants worldwide. Our team worked tirelessly and did everything they could to save Thorn. They displayed incredible devotion in trying to save him.”

While not much is known about EEHV, the disease can progress rapidly, and early detection is critical. Since he was a baby, Thorn was trained to be active in his health care and voluntarily participate in medical exams, including presenting his ears to allow for a weekly blood draw. This behavior, along with weekly testing, allowed the BioPark’s animal care team to discover the virus in Thorn’s blood at a very low level.

The BioPark staff immediately began working around the clock to treat the illness. Treatments started with antiviral medications and fluids. As Thorn’s disease continued to progress, the team shifted to twice-daily sedated treatments to ensure he was getting everything he needed, in addition to the non-sedated fluid and antiviral treatments. He also received regular infusions of plasma, whole blood and stem cells.

The BioPark was not alone in their efforts to treat Thorn. The National Elephant Herpesvirus Lab at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., provided bloodwork services and EEHV expertise. The BioPark received additional assistance from other accredited zoos, including ones that have treated an elephant with EEHV.

All elephants can carry EEHV in a latent state through their entire lives without negative effects. It is not known why the virus sometimes comes out of latency. Elephants are most susceptible to EEHV from 18 months to 8 years of age. In some cases, an elephant’s viral load reaches a fatal level within a matter of days. Adult elephants are less susceptible to the virus because their immune system is more robust.

The virus was first identified in the 1990s. While a lot is still unknown about this virus, the body of knowledge continues to grow, thanks to a network of researchers and accredited zoos. The BioPark finds solace in knowing that data from Thorn’s illness will contribute valuable scientific information that could eventually lead to a cure or vaccine for EEHV and help save other elephants.

Thorn’s short life had a great impact on the lives of other elephants. His birth was significant because he was born in the presence of his sister Jazmine and grandmother Alice. This natural herd birth was a huge advancement in the care and socialization of elephants in human care. He was also raised in a multi-age herd that includes his sister, grandmother, mother Rozie, adult male Albert and adult female Irene. The BioPark’s practices that allowed Thorn and the rest of the herd to use their natural behaviors are leading the way for elephant care across the United States and the world.

The BioPark is very grateful to the local community for their words of support. The BioPark also thanks its colleagues in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) who have reached out to offer their medical expertise and experience in helping BioPark staff and Thorn fight this disease.