An elephant care specialist at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park prepares a blood sample taken from one of the African elephants in the park’s herd. Photo via San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Researchers are studying a virus that can be deadly to elephants in an effort to keep the animals healthy both in the wild and in captivity.

Wildlife care specialists are working with the African elephant herd at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to find out more about a disease that was recently identified as a threat to the species. Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (also known by the acronym EEHV) is carried by both Asian and African elephant species, but until last year had been associated most frequently with deaths of young Asian elephants.

“EEHV is a virus that has evolved along with elephant species, over millions of years, and occurs in individuals in native and zoo settings,” said Lauren Howard, DVM, director of veterinary services at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

The threat of the virus to young Asian elephants has been studied for many years by zoos working toward understanding EEHV and its impact on individual elephants, and on entire populations. Last year, two young African elephants at another institution died of the disease—and now, Safari Park wildlife care specialists, veterinarians and researchers have begun a project to learn more about the virus, so that it can be better understood in African elephants.

“Because of the strong relationship the elephant care specialists at the Safari Park have with the elephant herd, they are able to work with them to take regular blood samples and trunk washes,” said Kristi Burtis, elephant care manager, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “We hope the information we gather will allow us to develop ways to manage the disease in populations of elephants in Africa and Asia.”

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