Elephant at Dallas Zoo, only 6 years old, dies from common zoo disease
A young elephant has died at the Dallas Zoo from a disease that has been shown to be common and deadly for young elephants held captive in zoos.
The elephant was Ajabu, a 6-year-old African elephant, who died on May 8 after a 12-day battle with the viral infection known as elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV).
According to the zoo, the illness initially showed up on Thursday, April 27, when his blood revealed an increase in the EEHV virus. The zoo gave him antiviral and antibiotic medications, anti-inflammatories, and transfusions of blood and stem cells. It didn't work.
announcement of his death, the Dallas Zoo lists the talking points that are zoo favorites:
- That the disease is not just at zoos, it's in the wild, too: "EEHV is carried naturally by African and Asian elephants and affects elephants living in the wild, as well as in human care."
- That the public should feel bad for the zoo staff: "Please lead with compassion and kindness, and hold the entire Dallas Zoo family close to your heart as we navigate through the difficult days ahead."
EEHV damages cells lining the blood vessels which results in leaking of fluid and blood in most organs. It hits Asian elephants more often than African elephants (the kind at the Dallas Zoo), and is the largest single cause of death in Asian elephants in North America and Europe zoos.
It was originally thought to be exclusive to zoos, where it was first diagnosed, but fatal cases have since been reported in the wild — a fact that zoos are quick to bring up, almost as an excuse or explanation for deaths in zoos. But it's difficult to quantify how many elephants in the wild have it or have died from it.
Zoos across North America and Europe are a hotbed, with more than 50 cases since 1995, and only nine of those cured. Those affected were mostly young animals born in captivity, though a small number of older wild-born adults held in zoos also died.
Since the end of 2020 alone, EEHV has caused the deaths of six young elephants: five Asian elephants at zoos in Albuquerque, Syracuse, and Ohio, and an African elephant at the Toledo Zoo.
Zoos always say that their mission is conservation and keeping the species alive, but this high number of EEHV fatalities would seem to indicate a problem with that mission.
It wasn't a rescue
The zoo called Ajabu an "amazing ambassador for his species" who "surprised us all with his entrance to the world following the rescue of elephants, including his mother, Mlilo, from Swaziland in 2016."
For the Dallas Zoo to continue to call the Swaziland elephants a "rescue" contradicts an admission from a zoo director who was directly involved.
In 2016, the Dallas Zoo and two partnering zoos imported 18 elephants from Swaziland by hastily flying them out of the country, claiming they were rescuing them from a drought and hinting they would otherwise be killed. (One died pre-transit.)
But one of the zoo directors admitted to the New York Times that they began planning this elephant import as far back as 2013, and another zoo director timed it all the way back to 2011.
Ajabu was born at the Dallas Zoo to Mlilo, one of the five Swaziland elephants the Dallas Zoo ended up with. (Zoo director Gregg Hudson claimed the Swaziland elephants would stay together as a "herd," but broke that vow two years later in 2018 when he quietly transferred two of their five, Nolwazi and her daughter Amahle, to the Chafee Zoo in Fresno, California.)
Mlilo was already pregnant when she was taken from Swaziland; she gave birth to Ajabu in 2018. At the time, the zoo claimed the birth was a "surprise".
But elephant pregnancies last for nearly two years. The only surprise is that the so-called professionals at the Dallas Zoo did not know that an elephant in its care was pregnant.
Mlilo has since given birth to a second male elephant, born on February 26, 2023.
In his short sad life, Abaju had EEHV twice, first in 2021, then again in 2023 when he succumbed. And yet at times like these, the Dallas Zoo always directs public sympathy towards the keepers and staff, and what a sad loss it is for them.
Instead of the staff, maybe the public should consider what it felt like for Abaju to endure an acute, lethal, hemorrhagic disease:
- It would begin with a fever, a sense of fatigue, weakness, or a general feeling of being unwell.
- That would progress into dizziness; muscle, bone, and joint aches; nausea; vomiting; and diarrhea.
- As it advanced into the life-threatening stage, more severe symptoms would include bleeding under the skin, in internal organs, or from the mouth, eyes, or ears.
- The nervous system then collapses, followed by delirium, coma, kidney failure, respiratory failure, and liver failure.
By comparison, the keepers at the zoo would seem to have it pretty easy.
Ajabu's death is one in a long-running series of deaths at the zoo that have accelerated in recent years, the most previous being Pin, a 35-year-old vulture who died in January 2023 after sustaining a mysterious wound. The zoo offered a reward for information but nothing came of it. Shrug.
Ajabu the elephant joins this death march of animals at the Dallas Zoo:
- Pin, a 35-year-old lappet-faced vulture, died on January 22, 2023, cause unknown.
- Jesse, a 14-year-old giraffe, died on October 29, 2021, cause unknown.
- Auggie, a 19-year-old giraffe, died in late October 2021 of liver failure.
- Marekani, a 3-month-old baby giraffe, sustained a mysterious injury and was euthanized on October 3, 2021.
- Kirk, a 31-year-old chimpanzee, died in August 2021 due to "surprise" heart disease.
- Keeya, a 6-year-old Hartmann's mountain zebra, died in March 2021 due to a mysterious unexplained head injury.
- Subira, a 24-year-old silverback gorilla, died suddenly in March 2020, due to a cough, or maybe cardiovascular disease.
- Hope, a 23-year-old Western lowland gorilla, died suddenly in November 2019 after being at the zoo for only two years.
- Ola, an 8-year-old female African painted dog, was killed in July 2019 by two other painted dogs, less than a month after she was transferred to the zoo.
- Witten, a 1-year-old giraffe, died in June 2019 during a physical exam under anesthesia when he suddenly stopped breathing.
- Adhama, a baby hippopotamus, mysteriously died in 2018.
- Kipenzi, a baby giraffe, died in 2015 after running in her enclosure.
- Kamau, a young cheetah, died of pneumonia in 2014.
- Johari, a female lion, was killed in front of zoo spectators in 2013 by male lions with whom she shared an enclosure.