Nice and sneezy does it as Twycross Zoo tackles elephant illness
It might not be glamorous, but Twycross Zoo's analysis of Asian elephant mucus has put them at the very front of research into a disease which plagues the species.
Zoological director Sharon Redrobe is part of a team of experts who have taught four female elephants at the zoo to sneeze into bags in a bid to understand more about elephant herpes.
They have developed a pioneering a way of testing the mucus for the disease – known as EEHV – which currently has no cure and can kill.
As part of her research, she has spent a year regularly testing three adult elephants and a calf at Twycross who all have the disease.
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Later this month, she will present her new testing method to a group of elephant virus specialists in Texas.
Sharon said: "While often you do not see too much of a problem in adult elephants, it can kill youngsters more easily than you might expect and it can lead to abortions and problems in elephants in captivity.
"What we are short of is research into it and, ultimately, a vaccine. It can cost between £10,000 and £20,000 to treat an elephant with anti-virals for just a week.
"We need a test that we can trust, and that is what we have been working on with Nottingham University."
The test involves collecting the elephant's mucus with a method called trunk washing.
"We get them to sneeze into a bag by putting water up their nose – it takes a bit of training," she said. They blow it out into the bag and we rush that to the lab and test for the disease."
Sharon's team's test is more accurate than previous tests because it searches for the DNA of the virus
"We might have half a pint of snot, but by looking for the DNA we can find it even if there are just a few thousand bits of the virus," she said.
The monthly tests have also shed light on the relatively under-researched disease, revealing that levels of the virus in a single elephant can change throughout the year.
Sharon is now looking for a new but equally reliable way of testing. She said: "The snot thing is kind of fun, but teaching the elephants to sneeze to get a sample can be a bit gooey and actually it is not always possible – maybe if the elephant was in the wild or poorly," she said.
"We are trying to develop an eye swab test. We want to get to the point where people think an elephant has it, and a simple test can prove it quickly and accurately."
Sharon hopes the more reliable test will help scientists find out more about the disease, which was only discovered 10 years ago.
"We've got four girls at our zoo and they are very precious to us," she said. "They have got herpes and we want to care for them the best we can.
"It is not contagious to humans and probably actually a pretty normal disease for elephants, but we want to look after the elephants."
Sharon is one of about 25 people who have been invited to talk at the annual EEHV Workshop in Houston, Texas, on January 28 and 29. The conference aims to eventually find a solution to the disease.