Rescuers Hope DNA Can Help Orphaned Elephant Find Her Real Family

Reuniting the 4-year-old African Forest Elephant with her real mom would also boost the critically endangered species' chance of survival.
Most baby elephants don’t live long without their mothers, who provide nourishment, maternal protection, and critical survival skills. But Nania, an orphaned elephant from Burkina Faso, was lucky, in part because villagers found the orphaned elephant just days after losing her herd.

“She wouldn’t have survived otherwise,” Céline Sissler-Bienvenu–one of the many people involved in helping the little elephant beat the odds–told the New York Times.
Rescuers Hope DNA Can Help Orphaned Elephant Find Her Real Family

Villagers rushed to give Nania–whose name means “will” in the local language–milk after finding her alone and dehydrated at just 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 a senior program manager) to increase the little elephant’s chance of survival.
Now Nania is four years old — and doing so well rescuers hope to reintroduce her back into the wild. The young elephant–who lives in a national park with 4 caretakers and her best sheep friend, Whisty–is quite happy in human care, but integrating her into a wild herd would help further her species’ survival.

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

“Because of the status of these animals in terms of how threatened they are, each individual really matters,” Ben Okita, who co-chairs the I.U.C.N.’s African Elephants Specialist Group, told the New York Times. “Every individual is held dear.”

But reintroducing Nania into the wild won’t be easy. First, the young elephant will need to befriend–and then be accepted by–a wild herd. Such introductions have worked in the past, but Nania’s case is unique. Nobody knows if wild elephants will adopt a 4-year-old orphaned elephant who has grown up in human care.

Fortunately, Nania has one big ace up her figurative sleeve: DNA samples gleaned from wild elephant dung left in the area. These samples suggest that Nania’s biological mother–who reportedly left a DNA sample left just 650 feet away from her daughter’s enclosure–may still be roaming nearby.

“There’s no question that we found the family,” Dr. Sam Wasser, a conversation biologist who analyzed the elephants’ DNA in his Seattle lab, told the New York Times.

Rescuers were expecting to find some of Nania’s relatives, but finding the elephant’s actual mom is even better news–both for Nania, who will enjoy a greater chance of survival in her mother’s care, and for her entire species. Follow IFAW on Facebook or Instagram for updates on the ongoing effort to reunite Nania with her biological family.