Baby-killer virus on a rampage in Thiruvananthapuram's sole elephant rehab centre

Baby-killer virus on a rampage in Thiruvananthapuram's sole elephant rehab centre
Body of five-year-old Arjun.

A savage virus that kills quickly like Ebola stalks the baby elephants kept in Thiruvananthapuram district's Kottur Elephant Rehabilitation Centre, 40-odd acres of forest patch in the shadow of the Agasthya Hills along the Western Ghats. Two calves have already died and three have shown severe symptoms.

One-and-a-half-year-old Sreekutty was the first victim. She had a high temperature on the evening of June 28 and was reluctant to take food. “Red blisters were also found inside her mouth,” said Thiruvananthapuram wildlife warden J R Ani. Antibiotic injections were administered but she collapsed by night.

Soon, blood samples of babies below ten at the Centre were taken. There were 10 of them. Six-year-old Podichi, who was lodged in the vicinity of Sreekutty, was the only calf that refused to cooperate. The samples were sent to the Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus (EEHV) laboratory in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.

The results came on July 1. Two of the calves that lived in enclosures near Sreekutty's, two-and-a-half-year-old Kannan and one-and-a-half-year-old Amina, tested positive for EEHV.

Five-year-old Arjun who was in the enclosure bang opposite Sreekutty tested negative. Since Podichi refused to cooperate, her status was unknown. Nonetheless, all the ten calves were given prophylactics, anti-herpes virus drugs famciclovir and acyclovir. “The drugs were in short supply and we have placed emergency orders for more medicines in Ernakulam and Hyderabad,” the wildlife warden said.

Kannan and Podichi started showing symptoms, Kannan more severely: loss of appetite, temperature, facial edema or swelling, bluish tongue and blisters inside the mouth. While Kannan and Podichi were being cared for, Arjun sprang a surprise on July 5. The five-year-old, who was found to be negative, developed symptoms far more quickly as though puffing up the face and forming red swellings inside the mouth were a game in which he wanted to outdo his friends.

Accelerated death

Less than 10 hours after the clinical symptoms appeared on him, fever and loss of appetite, Kannan died. “Once the virus starts manifesting as outward symptoms, the death is so quick that it does not even allow time for the antibiotic to act,” said Dr Arun Zachariah, the Chief Forest Veterinarian.

The animal first loses appetite, its temperature rises, the tongue will then develop a bluish colour (a condition called cyanosis in which oxygen levels in the blood plummet), blisters form, the face gets swollen, blood vessels rupture (the name endotheliotropic comes from the virus's special affinity to attack the endothelium or the thin membrane that lines blood vessels) and the haemorrhage begins causing cardiac arrest. All of this in four to 10 hours. "Only the Ebola virus acts this quick," Dr Zachariah said.

Baby-killer virus on a rampage in Thiruvananthapuram's sole elephant rehab centre
Kottur Elephant Rehabilitation Centre in Thiruvananthapuram district. File photo/Manorama

The EEHV is deadly only in juvenile elephants below 10 years and the fatality rate is nearly 80 per cent. Quite miraculously, Amina seems to have recovered. But Kannan is still not out of danger. “We have made him walk outside today (Wednesday) but he has still not crossed the danger zone,” wildlife warden Ani said.

Dr Zachariah said it was the quick response of vets in Kottoor that saved the rest of the calves. “Since the Forest Department was already doing research on EEHV, we could promptly identify the symptoms in Sreekutty (the first victim) and take quick action,” the Chief Vet said.

Vaccine controversy

Sangita Iyer, the founder of Voice for Asian Elephants Society and who had made a documentary on the shocking abuses inflicted on captive elephants in Kerala (God in Shackles), scoffs at the claim of prompt action. She alleged that the Kerala Forest Department was refusing to purchase vaccines. "The thing is, they have vaccines in India. I’d be happy to personally sponsor these vaccines," she said in a Facebook post.

She also called up the wildlife warden, repeating the offer. "She called me. But I told her I cannot accept the offer at my level. Moreover, she seems to have been mistaken about the vaccines," he said. Dr Zachariah said there were no vaccines for EEHV.

“Scientists across the world are trying to culture this virus but they have not yet succeeded. It's a big virus and they have not been able to cultivate it not just in traditional cell lines but also in elephant cell lines," he said.

Kottur Elephant Rehabilitation Centre
Kottur Elephant Rehabilitation Centre in Thiruvananthapuram district. File photo/Manorama

Guest virus

The first-ever sequencing of EEHV in the country, perhaps in the whole of Asia, was done by a team led by Dr Zachariah at the EEHV Lab in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in 2007.

The sequencing had busted the belief that the virus was transmitted from African elephants to their Asian brethren. The EEHV strain found in Asian elephants, including the ones in Kerala, is endogenous. In other words, the virus has evolved with the elephant over thousands of years. This could be one reason why it is not problematic in adult elephants. These adults, though they might even have a symbiotic bond with EEHV, will shed these viruses periodically through trunk secretions.

Kottur Elephant Rehabilitation Centre

Adults are spared, not juveniles

Orphan babies are more at risk from the virus possibly because their immunity is near zero. All babies that have been lodged in Kottoor or other rehab centres like Kodanad (where two calves had died in 2007 from EEHV) have been abandoned by their herds before they are properly nourished or weaned by their mothers. Sreekutty, for instance, was taken away from its mother by floodwaters. “Her umbilicus was still not healed when we got her,” wildlife warden Ani said.

Arjun, the second victim, was genetically weak. “It was found in an abandoned state in a tribal settlement at Mannarkkad division (Palakkad). In the jungle, it is the survival of the fittest. A herd's general welfare could be compromised by the presence of a genetically inferior baby that cannot keep up with the rigours of jungle life,” Ani said. Niranjan and Aswathy, two calves that were killed by EEHV in Kodanad in 2007, had genetic defects. Niranjan was saved by Dr Zachariah himself.

The Chief Vet said most of these abandoned babies would not have received colostrum (mother's milk) and, therefore, would not possess maternal antibodies.

Why the cruelty to babies

Nonetheless, it is still not clear why a virus so used to the elephant should be merciless towards babies.

“Why a virus that would normally be expected to be well adapted to and benign in its natural host displays such fulminant pathology remains to be explained, and the possibility that some other agent or cofactor contributes to the disease cannot be ruled out,” a paper co-written by Dr Zachariah said.

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