Rescuers hope DNA can help Orphan Elephant find its real family

Most baby elephants cannot live long without their mothers, who provide care, maternal protection, and vital survival skills. But Nania, an orphaned elephant in Burkina Faso, was lucky, in part because villagers found the orphaned elephant just days after losing the herd.

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu–one of the many people involved in helping the little elephant beat the odds, said: “She wouldn’t have survived otherwise.

Villagers rushed to give Nania – whose name means “will” in the local language – milk after finding her alone and dehydrated when she was only 2-3 months old.

But when Nania’s appetite exceeded their resources, they contacted the International Fund for Animal Welfare (where Sissler-Bienvenu works as senior program manager) to increase the baby elephant’s chances of survival.

Nania is four years old now – and doing well, the rescuers hope to get her back into the wild. The baby elephant – who lives in the national park with four caretakers and her best sheep friend, Whisty – is quite happy to be cared for by humans, but integrating her into the wild herd would help her species’ survival.

Nania enjoys a mud bath, one of her favorite activities.

This is doubly important because Nania is a wild elephant, a rarer species of African elephant that has been described as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Ben Okita, the co-chair of the IUCN African Elephant Expert Group, said: “Given how endangered the status of these animals is, each individual is significant. “Every individual is held, dear.”

But bringing Nania into the wild won’t be easy. First, the baby elephant will need to befriend – and then be accepted by – a wild herd. Such referrals have worked in the past, but Nania’s case is unique. No one knows if wild elephants will adopt a 4-year-old orphaned baby elephant that has grown up in human care.

Luckily, Nania has one big ace up for her: DNA samples collected from wild elephants’ dung left in the area. These samples suggest that Nania’s biological mother – who is believed to have left a DNA sample just 650 feet from her daughter’s enclosure – may still be roaming nearby.

By collecting dung of wild herds, we are able to analyze DNA and see if there’s a match with Nania.

Dr. Sam Wasser, a conservation biologist who analyzed elephant DNA in his Seattle lab, said: “There’s no doubt that we found the family.”

Rescuers were hoping to find some of Nania’s relatives, but finding the elephant’s birth mother is even better news – for also Nania, who will have a better chance of survival with her mother’s care, and for her entire species.

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Nania has a close relationship with her caretakers. The next step is to get her comfortable with wild elephants.