Lowe Warns of Imminent Elephant Extinction

By Rebecca Egli - On March 9, the Environments & Societies Research Initiative hosted the final event of its Winter 2016 Colloquium Series. Celia Lowe, an associate professor of anthropology and international studies at the University of Washington, presented a paper entitled "The Viral Creep: Elephants and Herpes in Times of Extinction."

Professor Lowe—a sociocultural anthropologist who studies biodiversity conservation and the avian influenza outbreak in Indonesia—examined the impact of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) among Asian elephant populations worldwide.

Silent killer

While EEHV is particular to elephants, various strains of the herpes virus affect humans and other mammals, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and molluscs. Exposure creates a lifelong infection; the virus can exist in an inactive phase, producing no obvious symptoms until it is reactivated as a result of conditions that suppress the immune system. Scientists do not fully understand the factors that trigger the virus, but believe they can be related to stress.

Among both captive and free-ranging elephant groups, the herpes virus currently threatens the long-term survival of the species. Among baby and juvenile Asian elephants, the virus is highly fatal. An outbreak can cause violent and sudden hemorrhaging that ruptures capillaries and causes the body to shed the endothelium—the inner lining of blood vessels and the heart. 

As a result, Asian elephants have suffered a catastrophic population decline in the twentieth century. Their numbers have dropped by half, and the species currently faces extinction. According to Lowe, the captive elephant population only has a few decades left before it is extinct.

Consequences of captivity

As a researcher specializing in microbial ethnography, Lowe grapples with the causes of this rapid population decline and pays close attention to the human, animal, and viral interactions that have led to the spread of the virus. Examining a wide range of conditions in zoos, parks, and wildlife sanctuaries where humans are attempting to create favorable living conditions for elephants and effectively combat the virus, she explained that EEHV continues to thwart human attempts at control. 

Zoos are working to establish successful breeding programs, but these efforts are challenging and costly. Once an elephant is born in captivity, the calf has a high risk of dying from the virus until it has reached adulthood. 

Insufficient efforts

Lowe argued that although elephants have lived alongside humans for thousands of years, their current proximity to humans—particularly in zoos and wildlife areas—poses an obstacle to elephant well-being. In order to minimize the likelihood of infection and harm from EEHV, elephants need to be physically well and free of stress. 

Elephants react to traumatic experiences like physical violence, isolation, or ivory poaching, as well as the dullness and separation from family members of life in small enclosures. Unable to cope with many of these modern conditions, increasing numbers of Asian elephants are succumbing to this deadly virus. In times of extinction, Lowe explained, EEHV challenges the belief that human efforts to manage and sustain elephant life are enough.

Learn more about Celia Lowe at her University of Washington faculty webpage.

Learn more about the Colloquium Series and see a schedule of upcoming events at the Environments & Societies website.

The Environments & Societies Research Initiative is administrated by the Institute for Social Sciences.