It’s been a pretty intense week. A two-year-old female calf at the breeding center was diagnosed with herpes. Even though she received treatment, she passed away two days later.
Herpes is near-epidemic among elephants in the US and recently reared its ugly head in Chitwan. Young calves between the ages of one and three seem to be most susceptible but there are records of juveniles and adults dying from the disease as well.
You’ll remember Bhadra, the fabulous flaming redhead we trained with positive reinforcement in Sauraha, Nepal. He died of the herpes virus last year, shortly before his second birthday. His mahout was so devastated that he left his job and returned to his home village.
Famciclovir, the treatment of choice for herpes, is not available in Nepal and must be imported from India. A small elephant can require as many as 1000 pills to fight the virus. The exorbitant cost—75 cents per pill—and large quantity needed, made stockpiling the medication impossible.
The calf was given available medication and was under treatment and constant surveillance as I arrange for a shipment of Famciclovir from friends at Wildlife SOS-India. Unfortunately, the drug did not arrive in time to save her. She died in the night with her mother stoically standing by. Records indicate that even with Famciclovir many calves do not survive.
I accompanied the team for the necropsy and somber burial; both were done with the utmost respect. All the mahouts were present and, for the first time in my observation, near silent. As Dr. Gaihre led the exploratory necropsy, examining and collecting tissue samples for lab work, the mahouts dug a grave. It was a sad and sobering experience. This calf had the classic symptoms of herpes–severe hemorrhaging–but otherwise was a very healthy elephant.
When it came time to lay her body to rest, I instinctively glanced around for wild flowers to place on her grave, just as we always did at the Sanctuary. After her precious body was covered with a sparkling clean white linen cloth, incense was lit and ceremonial red powder and flowers were sprinkled over her covered body. When the flowers I collected left my hand and floated down into her grave, a wave of gentle remembering engulfed my heart as I thought of the beloved elephants who had lived and died at the Sanctuary. At this moment we were all one, sharing the loss of a sacred soul.
The senior wildlife staff presided over the burial. Although the words spoken over her grave were in Nepalese and foreign to my ear, I knew exactly what the prayers were. It was the same ceremony, the same prayers uttered each time we buried another precious elephant at the Sanctuary. Like never before, I felt a connection with the mahouts who care as deeply for their elephants as we do ours.
Preparing for next time
The signs of herpes include dark spots on the tongue. By checking the tongue twice a day, the disease can be diagnosed in the early stages. In an effort to monitor the other three young calves at the breeding center, I was asked to train them for tongue examinations, a request that I was happy to fulfill.
Additionally, I ordered Famciclovir. Even though the drug may expire before it can be used, I feel strongly that having it on-hand whenever possible is important. We were not able to help one precious elephant but if the disease strikes again we will be better prepared.