Reuniting an Orphan Elephant and Her Mom, Perhaps, With DNA and Luck

The elephant was alone and dehydrated when villagers first found her. It was September 2017, and the motherless mammal wandering near Boromo in Burkina Faso was only 2 or 3 months old.

“She was tiny,” said Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, who is currently the senior program officer for European disaster response and risk reduction for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The elephant must have been discovered within a day or two of separating from her family, Ms. Sissler-Bienvenu guesses. “She wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”

Many orphaned elephants don’t make it. But with the help of people in and around Boromo, international conservationists and her best friend, a black-and-white sheep named Whisty, the scrappy elephant is now about 4 years old and thriving. Children at a nearby school named her Nania, or “will.”

Getting Nania from elephant infancy to elephant childhood has meant round-the-clock work for the people involved. And Nania’s rescuers now face a new challenge: figuring out whether she can be returned to life with a wild herd of elephants.

That process has a unique twist for Nania. Just as DNA technology has reunited human orphans with their biological families, similar testing this year revealed that Nania’s mother is probably still roaming nearby, and that one day Nania might join not just any wild elephant herd, but her original family.

The DNA analysis also showed that Nania and her relatives are forest elephants. For those working to save them, this project is about more than just rehabilitating one young forest elephant, but ensuring the future of her species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature recognized forest elephants as their own species, separate from Africa’s larger and more numerous savanna elephants, earlier this year. It also declared them critically endangered.

“Because of the status of these animals in terms of how threatened they are, each individual really matters,” said Ben Okita, a co-chair of the I.U.C.N.’s African Elephants Specialist Group, who is based in Nairobi. “Every individual is held dear.”

When orphaned elephant calves are rescued, they are usually found near a mother’s carcass. In Nania’s case, though, no one knew of an adult that had been killed. Although elephant mothers are extremely attentive, Nania’s family left her behind for some reason — perhaps at a nighttime river crossing that the tiny elephant couldn’t manage.

The villagers who found her in 2017 sought help from the local wildlife authorities, who brought the elephant to a pen outside their headquarters in Boromo. Locals pooled resources to buy milk for Nania. A drugstore donated powdered infant formula. But the young elephant’s appetite, unlike the funds of the humans around her, was bottomless. The humans needed help.

“They were desperate to know how to handle Nania,” Ms. Sissler-Bienvenu said. The wildlife authorities in Boromo, which is a few hours southwest of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, reached out to the International Fund for Animal Welfare for help, and the group took charge of the elephant’s care.

Rehabilitating a single orphaned elephant is a major undertaking. Young calves are dependent on milk for two or three years and need even more time to learn skills and, in certain areas, grow big enough to fend off lions.

“When you start to do elephant rehabilitation, in some places you’re signing on for something that could be 10 or 12 years’ worth of work,” said Katie Moore, deputy vice president for animal rescue at the animal welfare fund.

The organization saw promising signs for Nania, though. She had stayed physically healthy, and she didn’t seem depressed.

“We rapidly decided, yes, we can attack this problem and find a way” to help the elephant return to the wild, Ms. Moore said.

Ms. Sissler-Bienvenu issued an emergency grant to pay for milk and then flew to Burkina Faso to meet Nania.

She found that the community had rallied around the elephant. Schoolchildren visited her every day, and Nania sometimes chased after them, wanting to play. She got used to the sounds of passing motorcycles and donkeys and shouting people. She sometimes barged into the wildlife authority headquarters to find where her milk was being prepared.

“She became, very quickly, a kind of mascot,” Ms. Sissler-Bienvenu said.

But all that human attention wasn’t going to help Nania return to the wild. She needed a home where she could learn to be an elephant.

In February 2019, Nania’s new residence was completed inside Deux Balés, a nearby national park. It included a stable where she would stay at night, and a large fenced pasture called a boma.

Her loyal friend Whisty also lives there, as do four keepers who stay with Nania in pairs, a week at a time. This consistency is important, Ms. Moore said. “Keepers really do serve as surrogate mothers and aunties to these young elephants. They comfort them.”

Two of the keepers, Abdoulaye Sinou and Salif Sanogo, are former wildlife managers at the park who have been with Nania since the beginning. The other two, Idrissa Nignan and Soulayemane Bathiono, are former farmers. The IFAW team trained them to care for an elephant calf.

“They jumped right in and didn’t hesitate to learn the process,” Ms. Moore said. “These guys are superdedicated caregivers.”

In a video made by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Mr. Sanogo stands in waist-deep water, splashing with Nania while her sheep friend waits on shore. “Wherever I am, she’s always there,” he says in the video. “And wherever she is, I am always there too.”

Nania spends at least six to eight hours every day roaming the park with her keepers. This helps her map the wilderness in her mind and learn where to find water and tasty fruits. Nania also enjoys bathing in water and mud. And she no longer needs her bottles of milk; she’s been weaned for over a year.

That means she’s ready to start the process of joining a wild group. But there’s no simple road map.

Ideally, a young elephant like Nania meets wild elephants while she’s out walking, becomes comfortable with them and eventually leaves the boma for good. “The elephants choose when they go,” Ms. Moore said.

Helping a lone orphan survive and get back to the wild can be important for endangered populations, said Shifra Goldenberg, a behavioral ecologist with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. But being raised by humans also carries costs for solo animals, Dr. Goldenberg said. “You’re meeting their needs, but they’re not learning from animals of their species.”

Dr. Goldenberg is working with the elephant conservation efforts in northern Kenya to monitor orphans that have rejoined the wild. She says it’s not always obvious how successful a rehabilitation and release has been. For example, will the calf survive to adulthood? Does it know how to find food and avoid snakes? Years later, will it produce offspring?

But getting wild herds to adopt orphans isn’t a human invention, Dr. Goldenberg said. The elephants do it naturally. In a 2009 paper, researchers analyzed the DNA of elephants in northern Kenya and found that herd members weren’t always related. Elephants in about 20 percent of herds “were actually nonrelatives who acted exactly like families,” Dr. Goldenberg said.

“They can integrate with other families,” she added, “as long as the family is receptive to them.”

Nania might have a chance to join not just any family of wild elephants, but her own.

Only about 40 wild elephants pass through Deux Balés. The team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare figured that Nania’s family was probably among them. To find out, in 2019 they began collecting samples from heaps of elephant dung. They shipped 17 test tubes to the University of Washington in Seattle in October 2020.

There, Sam Wasser, a conservation biologist, analyzes elephant DNA in his lab. Usually, the samples come from ivory seizures. He and his colleagues sequence the DNA from little pieces of each tusk to figure out where the poached elephants lived and track the ivory traffickers. It can be heavy work, Dr. Wasser said. Using the same tools to potentially help a living elephant reunite with her family “really is a breath of fresh air,” he said.

The lab found a startling result: One of the sampled elephants was not just a relative, but almost definitely Nania’s mother.

“There’s no question that we found the family,” Dr. Wasser said.

Ms. Sissler-Bienvenu was elated. “We were expecting to have a match with relatives,” she said, but finding Nania’s mother was a dream. The elephant had deposited her dung within about 650 feet of Nania’s enclosure.

And because the DNA analysis showed that Nania and her family are forest elephants, the discovery adds to the potential significance of putting Nania back into the wild.

Ms. Moore said that while rescuing an individual animal might represent a huge investment of resources, it could also save a species.

“I can’t imagine not trying,” she said.

Using DNA to look for an orphaned elephant’s family wouldn’t be practical in most cases, Dr. Okita said. In a large park with thousands of resident elephants, you’d be seeking a needle in a haystack made of feces. But in Deux Balés, where so few elephants live, he said, attempting a family reunion is “the perfect thing to do.”

Getting Nania back with her own mother might increase her odds of survival, Dr. Okita added. A recent study showed that motherless elephants in wild herds were less likely to survive, even if they had been weaned.

But it won’t be easy. Although human rescuers have restored calves to their herds after brief separations, Ms. Moore said she knew of no example of a reunion between a mother and a calf like Nania, who have been apart for years.

The first time that she saw wild elephants, Nania turned and fled.

On another occasion, Ms. Sissler-Bienvenu said, Nania and her keepers were returning to the boma as darkness fell and realized that wild elephants had surrounded them. As the keepers sought shelter, they heard Nania and the wild elephants trumpeting back and forth outside.

After the other animals left, Nania became ill with diarrhea that lasted two days, Ms. Sissler-Bienvenu said. It seemed to be a physical reaction to the encounter.

We don’t know what they say to each other,” Ms. Sissler-Bienvenu said. “Maybe the wild elephants told her, ‘We don’t want you.’”

The hoped-for reunion didn’t happen during the first part of this year. Now, the wild elephants have migrated out of Deux Balés for the rainy season that started around June, and the window of opportunity has temporarily closed. When the rains end around October, maybe Nania — a little bigger and fatter, a little more confident — will be ready for the returning elephants.

Forest elephants live in smaller groups than savanna elephants, usually just a mother and her offspring. The groups in Deux Balés have maybe five or six animals in all. Nania’s keepers will have no way of identifying her family by sight. And that’s fine, Ms. Moore said. If any wild group wants to adopt the elephant calf, “That’s a huge win for her.”

If Nania does join a wild group, the international fund team plans to follow up with tracking and more dung sampling to make sure she’s safe — and to learn whether, against all odds, she has found her mother.

No one can say whether the pair will know each other after all this time. Elephants can recognize hundreds of individuals, Dr. Goldenberg said. When savanna elephants reunite with friends after a year or more, they react with extreme excitement: smelling each other, urinating and defecating in greeting, leaking secretions that resemble tear tracks from glands near their temples.

Ms. Moore thinks it’s possible that something — a smell, a rumble — will prompt recognition between Nania and her own family.

“What you really hope for is that there’s some connection that’s remembered when she finds the right herd,” she said. “And that it just happens.”

When the calf walks back into the wild for good, Ms. Moore would most love to see her alongside her kin.

“I’m a scientist by training,” she said, “but I do this because my heart’s in it, too.”

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