Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Existential Elephants: Common Illnesses

by Lisa Barrett

It is widely known that elephants can live to be very old (sometimes up to 65 or 70 years!)--just like humans—but what causes an elephant to finally kick the bucket? And how has our knowledge of these health issues in elephants helped to extend their lifespan in captivity? Please excuse the morbidity, and let’s talk causes of elephant death.

Unfortunately, humans are to blame for most causes of elephant death, including habitat loss, fragmentation, and poaching for ivory and meat. But don’t feel too guilty, because you can have a meaningful impact on elephant conservation by educating your friends and supporting our cause (Donate here: http://bit.ly/J4l3gn). Since we have discussed these conservation threats in detail in previous blogs (feel free to scroll through to read about them!), I will focus on a few other causes of elephant death. 

Most elephant deaths are caused by humans (through poaching or habitat destruction).

Photo from: http://

There are a number of illnesses that target different populations of elephants. For example, we find foot problems (ex: zoo-genic foot disease, pressure cracks, and overgrown nails) to be much more common in captive elephants than in their wild counterparts. This is especially true of zoo elephants, who historically were made to stand on hard concrete floors. Fortunately, this issue is being mitigated as zoo enclosures become better-designed for elephants. Another painful foot issue affects street elephants who walk on paved roads or concrete for extended periods of time and may develop smoothed feet and lose necessary traction.

Elephants in captivity may suffer from serious foot problems. 
Photo from: 

Elephants in the wild may succumb to more naturally occurring diseases. For example, anthrax, which is transmitted by rats, can lead to paralysis of the trunk. Heart disease, twisted gut, and parasite infections are other major illnesses contracted by wild elephants. Interestingly, elephants in the wild have been known to seek out their own remedies to deal with illness. For example, digestive dilemmas can be treated by fasting or consuming bitter herbs or bark. They may also protect open wounds by coating them with mud! Our veterinary staff has employed several natural remedies to help cure elephant abscesses, like using paste from plant material known to aid in skin health.

Elephant herpes virus affects both wild and captive elephants. Interestingly, it greatly affects young Asian elephants, whereas African elephants generally experience benign versions of the virus. It causes fatal hemorrhagic disease and is believed to be transmitted between elephants through trunk secretions. What’s more, it can produce pinkish nodules on the head or trunk of juveniles. More research is critical to understand the causes and effects of this rather widespread disease among elephants, especially because there is no known cure to the elephant herpes virus.  

A nodular growth an an African elephant's trunk caused by elephant herpes virus.
Photo from:http://

Tuberculosis is another common illness found in elephants, but it can also be passed between humans and elephants (and vice versa) through prolonged intensive contact. It is caused by mycobacterium tuberculosis in droplets in the air and affects the lungs and causes chronic weight loss, coughing, and diminished appetite.

Elderly eles who live into their sixties will most likely expire when their final (sixth) set of molars wear down and they are no longer able to chew or ingest their food, which will lead to starvation. Some captive elephants living out their lives receive special diets of mashed bananas to help mitigate this.

In order to avoid late detection of any illness at the elephant camp, the elephants here at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation receive regular health check-ups from our elephant veterinarian, Dr. Cherry. She uses positive reinforcement to have her patients present certain body parts for examination. 

Here, Dr. Cherry checks the feet of an elephant.
Photo from: Lisa Barrett


1 comment:

  1. Just a couple of updates:

    Anthrax - actually is an endemic soil bacteria common to low wetland pastures. Practically all ungulates and humans are immune to the live bacteria.

    When the dry season comes, the bacteria "mummifies" to survive dry conditions. The process creates extremely fine anthrax spores - which are coated in a glycoprotein which will rehydrate the spores by attacking living animal tissue after the next rainfall. This strategy works by letting the glycoprotein form cell pores which then allow insertion of an edema factor - followed by a cell death trigger. The edema factor converts lipids to sugars and waters - and the cell death factor triggers apoptosis - collapsing the cell walls so anthrax can feed. As a spore, many millions of anthrax bacteria can invade an animal in a single breath - but as a bacteria, the immune system actively seeks out and destroys it. As a spore, the spores are ingested by T-cells - where the outer coating dissolves - resulting in the spore rehydrating and multiplying inside T-cells - before killing them. The spore form can overcome the immune system of mammals, in less than 10-days, unless treated with antibiotics like doxycycline and cipro.

    While rodents are said to spread anthrax - in actuality - any mammal which feeds in a wet lowland pasture after a drought - is likely to encounter virulent anthrax spores - just by breathing the dust - or letting the dust invade cuts and scratches.

    Second update: Samson, the Elephant at the Baltimore Zoo, survived an EEHV infection this year with the help of the CDC and the USDA. The CDC has an interest in EEHV - since theoretically it could someday cross over to humans.

    Samson was given a high dosage antiviral treatment - including enemas - to purge his gut of the EEHV virus.

    Last report is that Samson is doing fine at the Baltimore Zoo. So, EEHV no longer has to be fatal for young Asian elephants if it is detected early enough and treated with antivirals like interferon.

    On the other hand, that is still one big veterinarian bill.