We know that everyone has been waiting to learn more about what happened to cause our dear Pocha’s passing. Because of the specificity of testing, laboratory limitations, and atypical presentation of disease, an initial preliminary report was not created by the university pathology team, as we originally anticipated. The newly released report states that Pocha had extensive and chronic compromise of her internal organs and the official cause of death is being listed as severe chronic kidney disease in association with the granulomatous inflammatory disease, in response to a mycobacterium. Essentially, what this means is that Pocha had contracted a Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection which, during necropsy, presented itself in an atypical fashion.
Generally, Mycobacterium tuberculosis is a pulmonary (lung or respiratory) disease which can spread to other areas of their body. However, there was no indication of infection in Pocha’s lungs, only in her abdominal cavity. The pathology team believes that the mycobacterium entered her abdominal cavity through significant ulcers that existed in her stomach wall. This infection caused extensive damage throughout her abdominal cavity, including her spleen, stomach, intestines, liver, and lymph nodes. Her thoracic cavity presented as “normal.”
While Mycobacterium tuberculosis is common among captive elephants in North America, Europe, and Asia, it is rare in South America. The South American climates, which are generally warmer, do not require elephants to stay confined inside with poor air circulation for extended periods of time, a situation that creates a prime breeding ground for mycobacteria. However, until the enclosure walls were opened for training, the concrete housing where Pocha and Guillermina lived had very poor air circulation, limited natural light and remained damp, all of which can open the door for several infectious agents.
It is imperative to note that elephants are not natural carriers of any species of mycobacterium. The infection is contracted from outside sources. In the case of mycobacterium tuberculosis, it is generally passed from people to the elephants. Pocha and Guille were tested for mycobacterium prior to their transport, as per importation sanitary requirements, but were examined for a different strain. However, based on the extent of the infection found in her body, the granulomas that she developed in response, and the impact on her organs, it is believed this process began at least several years ago.
So, the question exists: What is the risk to the other elephants?
Guille and Tamy have the potential for exposure, as both of them lived in the same facility with Pocha. We have already initiated additional testing for Guille and, as soon as the Ecoparque Mendoza can advance Tamy’s training, he will receive testing as well.
Due to the climate and facility design of Elephant Sanctuary Brazil, there is a risk, albeit minimal, that the infection could be transmitted to others. We are presently working to bring additional and more accurate testing methods from outside of Brazil to further monitor the health of the sanctuary elephants. One of the abnormalities in Pocha’s necropsy is the lack of granulomas or other evidence of infection in her lungs. This atypical presentation of mycobacterium infections suggests a decreased risk of exposure to others through respirations, the most common form of transmission. In other words, because the disease did not exist in her pulmonary system, she likely could not transmit the disease to others by breathing. Caregivers were under continued mask protocol due to Covid-19, which would be recommended protective equipment in these scenarios. In addition, those who live in Brazil and Argentina are vaccinated against tuberculosis.
Due to the physical distance between the Asian elephants at Ecoparque Mendoza and Kenya, their solitary African elephant, there is a minimal risk of the disease being passed from Pocha to Kenya. However, Kenya will also receive additional testing to monitor her health status. As of now, her baseline blood work does not show any current issues, although it is possible to be infected and still have normal blood parameters. However, the differences between the facility designs of Pocha and Guillermina’s enclosure and Kenya’s, it is less likely that the disease would be harbored within Kenya’s interior enclosure.
At the sanctuary, Asian and African elephants will be housed and managed separately, and therefore the African elephants will not have any risk of contamination.
The Ecoparque Mendoza and Elephant Sanctuary Brazil are committed to the health of elephants and to the elephant care teams. Both facilities are currently conducting testing and operational protocols to continue to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
Pocha’s illness is a reflection of the ability of elephants to mask discomfort, but it also reveals her tenacity to remain as healthy as she could for as long as possible. We wholeheartedly believe that she stayed strong until she knew her daughter could have a life of freedom, at which point she felt comfortable letting go. To this day, we are amazed to look back at photos taken just days before Pocha’s passing and find it incredible that she looked so brilliant with all that was going on internally. Elephants and their unfathomable resilience will never cease to amaze us.
The truth of this matter remains simple: the captive lives that elephants endure before coming to sanctuary causes irreparable damage to their bodies. While there may be instances where we can slow the progression of illness, as we attempt to do with Lady’s feet, there are some things we simply cannot fix. As elephants get older, their immune systems often weaken and they become more susceptible to disease. Pocha’s illness and untimely death is an example of why sanctuary exists – because a life in unhealthy captivity is not suitable for elephants; we have to do better by them. We cannot continue to deny what they show us time and again.
We understand that these results may cause you to have additional questions. Unfortunately, due to the complexities of this case and the medical understanding and language necessary to accurately discuss Pocha’s situation, we cannot address questions on social media or through individual requests. There are many questions that we ourselves would like more information about, but those answers do not exist at this point, and may never exist. All that we can say right now is that we will discuss more information if and when there is more to share. Thank you for your love of Pocha and your ongoing support for Guillermina and all of the elephants at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil.
Photo of Pocha and Guillermina
If you’d like more information on tuberculosis in elephants, you can read the following articles: