First elephant born at Woburn Safari Park beats the odds to survive Ebola-like virus

Tarli with Woburns Head Elephant Keeper Darren Fellowes. Photo:Bridget Davey Photography
Tarli with Woburns Head Elephant Keeper Darren Fellowes. Photo:Bridget Davey Photography

A three-year-old Asian elephant at Woburn Safari Park has beaten the odds to recover from an aggressive disease which is fatal in 80% of recorded cases.

Similar to the Ebola virus in humans, elephant endotheliotrophic herpes virus (EEHV) can seriously weaken the circulatory system in juvenile elephants leading to rapid deterioration.

Tarli and her aunt Chandrika at Woburn Safari Park last summer.  Bridget Davey Photography

Tarli and her aunt Chandrika at Woburn Safari Park last summer. Bridget Davey Photography

Born at Woburn in September 2014, Tarli is cared for by the dedicated team of Woburn keepers, mother Damini and father Raja.

Tarli’s case shows the value of routine blood tests and proves recovery is possible even in cases where clinical symptoms appear.

Elephants are at greatest risk of EEHV between the ages of one and eight. Woburn has followed weekly blood testing protocols for EEHV since Tarli entered the at-risk age group.

With no vaccination available for EEHV, regular blood tests are crucial because symptoms do not appear until the virus is well-established, leading to delayed treatment and greater risk of fatality.

Asian elephant calf Tarli with the herd at Woburn Safari Park. Photo: Bridget Davey Photography

Asian elephant calf Tarli with the herd at Woburn Safari Park. Photo: Bridget Davey Photography

Tarli’s blood test revealed an EEHV infection at the end of last November. Despite a lack of clinical signs, vets began treatment immediately to create the best possible chances of survival.

Current treatment for EEHV is mostly supportive, helping maintain bodily function while the immune system fights the disease. A fortnight-long course of anti-viral and plasma transfusions was combined with 24-hour supervision from keepers who have worked closely with Tarli since she was born.

Woburn’s head elephant keeper Darren Fellowes said: “EEHV is an awful virus, targeting the youngest members of the herd. As keepers we spend more time with our animals than our families and all of us are so relieved at how positively Tarli has responded to treatment.”

Tarli’s treatment programme focused on keeping the young elephant calm and stress free by enabling her to remain with the rest of the herd which includes her parents, and stick to her usual routine.

In this case the use of intravenous ganciclovir and plasma has had a successful outcome and opens the door to offering alternative treatment protocols.

Six weeks since receiving the all-clear there is still risk of a potential relapse, but the team are cautiously celebrating Tarli’s recovery while continuing to monitor her closely.

Woburn Safari Park raises funds for charity International Elephant foundation which invests in elephant conservation and research, including for an EEHV vaccine.

Specialist vet Nathalie Wissink-Argilaga, who led Tarli’s treatment, said: “EEHV is the most serious medical threat to the survival of Asian elephant calves.

“Every case builds on the experience of others, and the body of research around earlier cases allowed us to create an effective treatment programme for Tarli, and ultimately saved her life.

“Details of Tarli’s recovery are being shared with the international veterinary community and we hope to share lessons on the value of swift treatment, stress-reduction, continuous monitoring of viral loads and blood parameters and intravenous administration of antivirals and plasma.”