Clinical and Pathologic Aspects of a Fatal Herpesvirus Disease in Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) Elephants
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 1999
Laura K. Richman1, DVM; Richard J. Montali2, DVM; Richard C. Cambre2, DVM; Dennis Schmitt3, DVM, PhD; Douglas Hardy4, DVM; Richard L Garber5, PhD; Thomas Hildbrandt6, DVM; Joerns Fickel6, PhD; Willem Schaftenaar7, DVM; Gary S. Hayward1, PhD
1Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA; 2Smithsonian Institution, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC, USA; 3Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield, MO, USA; 4Dickerson Park Zoo, Springfield, MO, USA; 5PathoGenesis Corporation, Seattle, WA, USA; 6Institute for Zoo Biology and Wildlife Research, Berlin, Germany; 7Rotterdam Zoo, Rotterdam, Netherlands


A detailed account of the virologic and clinicopathologic features of a recently recognized fatal herpesviral disease of Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) elephants has been described by our group.5,6 We have determined that there are two closely related herpesviruses that infect elephants, one virus is lethal for Asian elephants and the other for African elephants. The predominant clinical signs for both species included lethargy, edematous swellings of the head and thoracic limbs, oral ulceration, cyanosis of the tongue and death in most elephants in 1–7 days. Pertinent laboratory findings in several of the clinically evaluated animals included lymphocytopenia and thrombocytopenia. Necropsy findings in the fatal cases included pericardial effusion and extensive petechial hemorrhages in the heart and throughout the peritoneal cavity, hepatomegaly, cyanosis of the tongue, and intestinal hemorrhage and ulceration. Histologically, there were extensive microhemorrhages and edema throughout the myocardium and a mild degree of myocarditis. Similar hemorrhagic lesions with inflammation were evident in the tongue, liver and large intestine. Lesions in these target organs were accompanied by amphophilic to basophilic, intranuclear viral inclusion bodies in capillary endothelial cells and transmission electron microscopy of the endothelial inclusion bodies revealed 80–92 nm-diameter viral capsids, consistent with herpesvirus morphology. Prior to the identification and description of this highly fatal herpesvirus disease in captive elephants,4-6 there existed only several reports of herpesviruses occurring in skin papillomas1 and pulmonary nodules2 of African elephants by light and electron microscopy, but no references to herpesvirus in Asian elephants. At the time, these lesions with herpetic inclusion bodies in the African elephants were considered incidental or localized findings with no systemic illnesses associated with them, and no documentation of herpesvirus isolation. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR), followed by sequencing of DNA extracted from African elephant skin papillomas has identified an identical sequence in the terminase gene region as the virus lethal for Asian elephants.5 Similarly, a nearly identical viral DNA sequence was identified by PCR in biopsies of the lymphoid patches from the distal vaginal tract (vestibulum) of a wild African elephant which did not contain viral inclusion bodies histologically.3,5

Morphologic evidence of herpesviruses in pulmonary nodules of wild African elephants has been documented.2 These lung nodules are composed of lymphoid follicles which surround epithelial cells that contain intranuclear inclusion bodies and herpesvirus-like particles by electron microscopy. PCR followed by sequencing of DNA extracted from these lesions suggests that the herpesvirus present in African elephant lung nodules is the same virus that was lethal for the two African elephants with disseminated endotheliotropic disease.6 This may indicate that African elephants can latently harbor the two novel herpesviruses, one that can cause fatal endotheliotropic disease in Asian elephants and the other in African elephants. Three young Asian elephants recovered after a 3–4-wk course of therapy with the anti-herpesvirus drug famciclovir.7 One of these treated elephants showed a rapid abatement of clinical signs and return of hemogram values to normal, which coincided with a decrease in the concentration of herpesvirus in the blood as detected by temporal semi-quantitative PCR assays.6 Although we have documented an apparent carrier state for these herpesviruses in African elephants, the mode of transmission has not been proven. Assays to detect previous exposure and possible non-viremic carrier elephants are in the development stages.


Funded by NIH grant No. 1 K08 AI01526-01, the Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Program, the Kumari Elephant Conservation Fund and Friends of the National Zoo. The authors thank the following individuals and institutions for their contributions to our study: J. Cohen, National Institutes of Health; S. Feldman, Anmed/Biosafe Inc.; S. Mikota, The Audubon Institute; R. Mirkovic, Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research; J. d'Offay and R. Eberle, Oklahoma State University; G. Letchworth, University of Wisconsin-Madison; K.E. Steele, B. Connolly and P. Jahrling, United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases; A. Ruebel, Zoo Zuerich; P. Ossent, University of Zuerich; F. Osorio, University of Nebraska, Lincoln; S. Kania and M. Kennedy, University of Tennessee, Knoxville; E. Dierenfeld, The New York Wildlife Conservation Society; J. Trupkiewicz, L. Munson and D. Taylor, University of California-Davis; D. Nichols, V. Bonshock, D. Fischer, A. Bratthauer, N. Spangler, K. Clark, J. Sutton, N. Pratt, M. Bush, J. Block and the elephant keeper staff, National Zoological Park; J. Jenkins and R.V. Ferris, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology; J. Gaskin, University of Florida; D. Olson, African elephant Species Survival Plan (SSP) coordinator; M. Keele, Asian elephant SSP coordinator; A. Schanberger, Houston Zoological Gardens; Marine World Africa-USA, Vallejo, CA; L. Bingaman-Lackey, AZA; N. Kriek, Univ. of Pretoria, S. Africa; R. Bengis, Kruger National Park, S. Africa; San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park; Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES); New York Wildlife Conservation Society; Lincoln Park Zoo; Dickerson Park Zoo; African Lion Safari; Tulsa Zoological Park; Fort Worth Zoo; Indianapolis Zoo; Dallas Zoo and the Oakland Zoo.

Literature Cited

1.  Jacobson, E.R., J.P. Sundberg, J.M. Gaskin, G.V. Kollias, and M.K. O'Banion. 1986. Cutaneous papillomas associated with a herpesvirus-like infection in a herd of captive African elephants. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 189:1075–1078.

2.  McCully, R.M., P.A. Basson, J.G. Pienaar, B.J. Erasmus, and E. Young. 1971. Herpes nodules in the lung of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana). Onderstepoort Journal of Veterinary Research. 38:225–236.

3.  Munson, L., W. Karesh, S. Shin, J. Balke, P. Calle, R. Cambre, M. Cranfield, S. Citino, and R. Junge. 1995. Lymphoid follicular vulvitis in African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephants. J. Zoo Wildl. Med. 26:353–358.

4.  Ossent, P., F. Guscetti, A.E. Metzler, E.M. Lang, A. Rubel, and B. Hauser. 1990. Acute and fatal herpesvirus infection in a young Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Vet. Pathol. 27:131–133.

5.  Richman, L.K., R.J. Montali, R.L. Garber, M.A. Kennedy, J. Lehnhardt, T. Hildebrandt, D. Schmitt, D. Hardy, D.J. Alcendor, and G.S. Hayward. 1999. Novel endotheliotropic herpesviruses fatal for Asian and African elephants. Science. 283:1171–1176.

6.  Richman, L.K., R.J. Montali, R.C. Cambre, D.L. Schmitt, D. Hardy, R.L. Garber, T. Hildebrandt, F. Hamzeh, A. Shahkolahi, and G.S. Hayward. 1999. Clinical and pathological findings of a new endotheliotropic herpesvirus disease of elephants. J. Wildlife Diseases. (submitted).

7.  Schmitt, D.L. and D.A. Hardy. 1998. Use of famciclovir for the treatment of herpesvirus in an Asian elephant. Journal of the Elephant Managers Association. 9:103–104.


Speaker Information
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Laura K. Richman, DVM
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Baltimore, MD, USA

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