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ZURICH

Deadly elephant-killing virus at Zurich Zoo stumps experts

A deadly virus has swept through Zurich's zoo, killing three Asian elephants in a month. Experts are stumped about the virus and don't know how to stop its spread.

Elephants in the Zurich Zoo. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Elephants in the Zurich Zoo. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The zoo overlooking Switzerland’s largest city now has only five of the majestic creatures roaming its 11,000-square-metre (118,400-square-foot) elephant enclosure.

Two-year-old bull Umesh was the first to fall victim to the Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) at the end of June, followed just days later by his eight-year-old sister Omysha.

Last Saturday, Ruwani, a five-year-old female from a second matriarchal herd also died.

They succumbed at lightning speed to the herpesvirus, which leaves young Asian elephants with internal bleeding and organ failure.

In captivity, this virus is “the main cause of death for elephants between two and eight years”, zoo curator Pascal Marty told AFP.

The virus has also been known to kill elephants in the wild, he said, but “it’s a bit harder to detect”.

Last goodbye

The herpesvirus lies latent in nearly all elephants, both in the wild and in captivity, but can in some cases suddenly become deadly, killing its victims in a matter of days.

“We still don’t know why it happens and when it happens,” Marty said.

The zoo’s five remaining Asian elephants — all adults — were permitted to spend a few hours gathered around the remains of their young family members and companions.

Marty said it was important to give the animals “enough time (to) say farewell”. “It’s very hard to say whether or not they are sad, because sadness is something human,” he said.

But he stressed that since elephants are highly social animals, it is vital that they have a chance to realise when a member of their herd is no longer alive.

“It is very important for them to have closure to understand this individual is not part of our group anymore.”

Less than a week after the latest death, the giant mammals appear to be going nonchalantly about their daily activities, from swimming in a large pond to searching for food.

They slip their trunks into holes, where a computer programme randomly distributes carrots and dried grass, aiming to make the animals walk and search for food as in the wild. 

Stress 

“It is kind of sad, especially because here in Zurich I think the elephants do have enough space,” said frequent visitor Mauro Muller, 29. Zurich zoo opened its new elephant enclosure in 2014, providing its herds six times more space than they had previously.

But eight years on, the zoo acknowledged it was going through “difficult days”.

“It is particularly frustrating that we are powerless against this virus, despite the best veterinary care through the university animal hospital in Zurich,” zoo director Severin Dressen said in a statement.

There is no vaccine, and while antivirals exist, they are not very efficient and even when elephants are treated quickly, only about a third of them survive.

“The epidemiology of the disease is still not clear,” said Bhaskar Choudhury, a veterinarian and member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Asian Elephant Specialist Group.

“The virus is shed intermittently by adults but with increasing frequency during stress periods, which is thought to be the source of infection for young calves,” he told AFP.

“IUCN is highly concerned with the mortality worldwide in captivity and more so in the wild.”

‘Ambassadors’ 

Asian elephants, which can live up to around 60 years old, are listed by the IUCN as an endangered species, with only about 50,000 left in the wild. Deforestation, urban sprawl and agricultural development have robbed them of their natural habitat, while poaching and the illegal ivory trade also threaten many herds.

“The populations are declining almost everywhere,” Marty said, adding that for conservation reasons, “it is also really important to have good and healthy populations of Asian elephants in Europe”.

Zurich zoo, he said, has one of the world’s most modern elephant enclosures, and is intent on continuing with its mission to breed them.

He described the elephants in the park as “partners” in educating people about the problems wild elephants face. “Elephants here at the zoo have an important role as ambassadors for their own species,” he said.

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ZURICH

‘3,000 francs a month?’: Zurich to vote on trying universal basic income

On Sunday September 25th, while the Swiss will decide on three national issues in a national referendum, Zurich voters will weigh in on a pilot project involving the recurring issue of universal basic income.

'3,000 francs a month?': Zurich to vote on trying universal basic income

The idea of the government handing out a set amount of money to its citizens is not a novel concept in Switzerland: in 2016, a referendum made Switzerland the first country in the world to vote at national level on this issue.

But 76.9 percent of voters rejected this initiative because they could not see how it could be funded without increasing taxes.

Some left-leaning districts in Zurich, however, voted in favour of the universal basic income (UBI), and while nothing came of it on the national level at the time, the city will re-vote on this issue on Sunday.

READ MORE: Zurich to roll out universal basic income pilot project

While the exact details are still muddy, voters will decide whether to offer “free” money on monthly basis to 500 residents chosen for the pilot project.

Though the amount is not yet determined, it could likely be between 2,500 and 3,000 francs a month.

Contrary to what had been proposed at the federal level in 2016, the part paid by the city government will vary according to income from work.

For the political left, which launched the proposal, UBI “represents a possible answer to current challenges such as automation, poverty and the climate crisis”, the group says on its website.

Among the opponents, the municipal council “believes that paid work is the most important element to ensure the livelihood of individuals and at the same time create social prosperity”.

Does this proposal have a chance of success?

Based on the outcome of the national vote, probably not.

On a municipal level too, such initiatives have already failed in Bern and Lucerne.

However, as Swiss media points out, “Zurich is very left”, so perhaps UBI can get more of a boost there.

As far as the national referendum on September 25th is concerned, this article explains what issues will be voted on:

Pensions, farming and tax: What issues will the Swiss vote on this month?
 

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