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OKC Zoo’s young elephant, Kairavi tests positive for EEHV

By Darla Shelden, City Sentinel Reporter —

UPDATE: Zoo officials say as of Thursday, August 12, Kai is doing much better! For more infomation watch this video!

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden’s animal and veterinary care teams have begun 24/7 antiviral treatments for its youngest Asian elephant, female Kairavi (Kai), 2, for elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV).

EEVH is a naturally occurring potentially lethal virus.

A low level of the EEHV1A virus was detected on July 29, in Kai’s blood through routine testing.

Kai’s current behavior and activity level are normal and she continues to show no clinical signs of illness, which are all positive signs, according to the Zoo’s press release.

Since this is the first time Kai has tested positive for this particular strain, the animal and veterinary care teams are taking no risks and began administering antiviral treatments on July 29. Treatments and 24/7 monitoring will continue until her virus levels decline.

“The Zoo’s entire expert elephant caretaking team and veterinary staff are closely monitoring Kai, her reaction to the treatment protocol and the behavior of the entire elephant herd,” said Dwight Lawson, OKC Zoo’s executive director and CEO.

“We are grateful for the overwhelming support of our members, visitors and colleagues at other elephant care facilities around the country accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).”

The OKC Zoo’s veterinary team participates in cooperative, multi-institutional research efforts to study EEHV, identify the viruses, learn about their transmission, improve treatments and find a vaccine. The early detection of EEHV1A virus in Kai’s blood and the current antiviral medical treatment are the best-known way to help elephants overcome the virus. 

Committed to EEHV research and preparedness efforts, the Zoo’s elephant care team conducts weekly blood collections, trunk “washes” and other testing procedures on their entire elephant herd to monitor the signs of EEHV, a naturally occurring disease that is unfortunately often fatal for elephants worldwide. 

EEHV testing is completed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which requires specialized equipment and training that the Zoo conducts in-house at the Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital

Having the ability to perform EEHV surveillance in-house has allowed the Zoo to study and learn more about the epidemiology of this virus. Scientific evidence indicates that all elephants carry one or more types of EEHV and virus transmission is only through direct elephant-to-elephant contact. 

To date, scientists have identified twelve species of elephant herpes viruses, seven of which are associated with disease and death. The viruses found in symptomatic elephants at different zoos and other institutions are genetically distinct.

The release states that “Herpesviruses are widespread in all mammal species, including humans. While species-specific, they share common features. Once inside a host, the virus can go into a latent (hidden) phase after causing only mild symptoms or no signs of disease at all. For reasons unknown, an elephant herpesvirus can come out of latency and circulate throughout the bloodstream, causing disease.”

Kai’s half-sister, Malee, the first Asian elephant born at the OKC Zoo, died in 2015 at the age of four due to infection of EEHV1A, the most common strain in elephants across North America, Europe and in Asia including wild populations. This strain was similar to the one that caused illness in Chandra, one of the Zoo’s adult females, aunt to Kai, Malee and Achara, when she was a calf.

Fortunately, Chandra survived the illness, and has remained healthy since that time. 

The Oklahoma City Zoo is home to a multi-generational herd of seven elephants including Asha (Kai’s mother), 26; Chandra, 25; Bamboo, 54; Rex (Kai’s father), 52; Kandula, 19; Achara, 6; and Kai. Additionally, Asha is pregnant and expecting her fourth calf in February 2022. 

To learn more about EEHV research and preparedness at the OKC Zoo, click here.

The Oklahoma City Zoo is home to a multi-generational herd of seven elephants including Achara, 6 (left); and Kai (center).and Asha (Kai’s mother – right)), 26. Photo provided.
The Oklahoma City Zoo’s animal and veterinary care teams have begun 24/7 antiviral EEHV treatments for its youngest Asian elephant, 2 year old female Kairavi (Kai). Photo provided.