The Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is committed to preserving Asian and African elephants—both in human care and in the wild. As part of this mission, the Zoo researches diseases that afflict elephants, such as the elephant herpesvirus, known as elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV). Researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo were the first to identify EEHV in 1995, following the death of our 16-month-old Asian elephant, Kumari, who was Shanthi’s first calf. Since then, these researchers have made significant discoveries on the biology of EEHV.
Elephants in human care and in the wild have been affected by EEHV, which has been responsible for about half of the deaths of young elephants in zoos. In response, cooperative multi-institutional research efforts have been underway for more than a decade to study EEHV, identify the various strains, learn about their transmission, develop and improve treatments, and find a vaccine. In the wild, elephants face extreme pressure from human-elephant conflict, habitat loss and poaching. In institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), elephants are important conservation ambassadors for their species and ecosystems. Seeing, hearing and even smelling these magnificent animals up close in zoos is critical to helping visitors make an emotional connection to the natural world of elephants and take action to help protect their future. To save elephants, scientists need easy access to the animals to study them. Zoos provide an unparalleled opportunity for this.
Today the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is the prime worldwide resource of herpesvirus information, testing and research for the global elephant community. The lab works in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University and focuses on diagnosing elephants in North America and researching new methods of testing for the various strains of elephant herpes. Its ultimate goal is to prevent future deaths resulting from this devastating disease. Genetics research at the Zoo is also focused on understanding EEHV and the family of genes that helps determine how resistant elephants are to infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and the herpes virus. The Zoo’s elephant herd has been actively contributing regular blood samples to this research effort.