A precious soul lost

It’s been a pretty intense week. A two-year-old female calf at the breeding center was diagnosed with herpes. Even though she received treatment, she passed away two days later.

Herpes is near-epidemic among elephants in the US and recently reared its ugly head in Chitwan. Young calves between the ages of one and three seem to be most susceptible but there are records of juveniles and adults dying from the disease as well.

You’ll remember Bhadra, the fabulous flaming redhead we trained with positive reinforcement in Sauraha, Nepal. He died of the herpes virus last year, shortly before his second birthday. His mahout was so devastated that he left his job and returned to his home village.

Famciclovir, the treatment of choice for herpes, is not available in Nepal and must be imported from India. A small elephant can require as many as 1000 pills to fight the virus. The exorbitant cost—75 cents per pill—and large quantity needed, made stockpiling the medication impossible.

The calf was given available medication and was under treatment and constant surveillance as I arrange for a shipment of Famciclovir from friends at Wildlife SOS-India. Unfortunately, the drug did not arrive in time to save her. She died in the night with her mother stoically standing by. Records indicate that even with Famciclovir many calves do not survive.

I accompanied the team for the necropsy and somber burial; both were done with the utmost respect. All the mahouts were present and, for the first time in my observation, near silent. As Dr. Gaihre led the exploratory necropsy, examining and collecting tissue samples for lab work, the mahouts dug a grave. It was a sad and sobering experience. This calf had the classic symptoms of herpes–severe hemorrhaging–but otherwise was a very healthy elephant.

When it came time to lay her body to rest, I instinctively glanced around for wild flowers to place on her grave, just as we always did at the Sanctuary. After her precious body was covered with a sparkling clean white linen cloth, incense was lit and ceremonial red powder and flowers were sprinkled over her covered body. When the flowers I collected left my hand and floated down into her grave, a wave of gentle remembering engulfed my heart as I thought of the beloved elephants who had lived and died at the Sanctuary. At this moment we were all one, sharing the loss of a sacred soul.

The senior wildlife staff presided over the burial. Although the words spoken over her grave were in Nepalese and foreign to my ear, I knew exactly what the prayers were. It was the same ceremony, the same prayers uttered each time we buried another precious elephant at the Sanctuary. Like never before, I felt a connection with the mahouts who care as deeply for their elephants as we do ours.

Preparing for next time

The signs of herpes include dark spots on the tongue. By checking the tongue twice a day, the disease can be diagnosed in the early stages. In an effort to monitor the other three young calves at the breeding center, I was asked to train them for tongue examinations, a request that I was happy to fulfill.

The first day of training was a heart-lifting success. We were able to get the calves to place their trunks on their foreheads—for a tasty piece of banana—and took photos of their tongues.

Additionally, I ordered Famciclovir. Even though the drug may expire before it can be used, I feel strongly that having it on-hand whenever possible is important.  We were not able to help one precious elephant but if the disease strikes again we will be better prepared.

A Google search for elephant herpes virus will result in a volume of information about this deadly disease. Help us prepare for the next time.  If you wish to contribute to the cost of Famciclovir for calves at the Chitwan Elephant Breeding Center, please do so through our Chip-In.

Back in Sauraha, Chitwan, Nepal

Working in Asia the past two years I have learned a tremendous amount about how culture and tradition affect collaborative conservation efforts. Among the most important lessons is the need to ensure project sustainability. No matter how groundbreaking or beneficial the project promises to be, it must be sustainable to be successful.

Ways to sustain the project must be identified during the planning stage, otherwise the effort put into it will have been wasted. Sustainability determines success and people ensure sustainability.

Before returning to Chitwan, I wondered if our chain-free yard pilot project for Sweetie Kali, aka Prakriti Kali, would prove to be sustainable. Although I prepared myself for less, I hoped the mahouts had truly embraced this welfare project. Success hinged on their acceptance of this approach to elephant care, which is nearly the polar opposite to their tradition.

As I approached the elephant stables I saw Sweetie Kali foraging in her personal forest. The dense scrubs were a faint memory but the mature trees were standing tall, providing shade and enrichment, just as they had when we built the yard last May.

I was pleased and honestly a bit relieved to see that the chain-free fence was in pristine condition. The staff, under the direction of Chiran Pokheral, the officer in charge, did a fabulous job of ensuring the success of our pilot project.

It’s my nature to push headlong into the next project forgetting to take a moment to bask in the glow of a collaborative project well done. It is too easy to get swept away in the excitement of something new and forget to thank the people responsible for making everything happen.

In addition to Paspat and the mahouts, who were completely receptive to the changes in their routine that a chain-free yard required, many other individuals, including Chiran Pokheral, Dr. Gairhe, Ram Kumar, Babu Ram, Nandu, Vishnu and Dibyendu and his crew, made this project possible. Without their support and assistance, this project would never have come to fruition, much less become sustainable.

Special thanks goes to Chiran Pokheral who, after securing the required clearances, made sure I had access to plumbers, electricians and day laborers, and the cooperation of everyone needed to complete the project. Without Chiran we would still be dreaming about a chain-free yard instead of watching Prakriti Kali thrive in it.

Dr. Gairhe, the senior government veterinarian, also played a key role in the project’s success. A true conservationist, Dr. Gairhe’s endorsement and oversight of the project provided the much-needed assurance at the government level.

Now that I am back in Sauraha, it’s time to identify a location for the second chain-free yard. This yard will be for Man Kali and her three-and-a-half month old calf Hem Gaj. Once again we turn to Chiran Sir,  Dr. Gairhe and the NTNC staff  to lead us in our effort to improve elephant welfare in Nepal.