DNA testing pioneered in effort to track down long-lost mother of ‘orphan’ elephant

Exclusive: After more than three years of being apart, critically endangered animal could be reunited with family

Friday 21 May 2021 16:16
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Orphaned elephant befriends sheep in search for family

She’s living the life of an orphan, her family a long distant memory.

The closest bond that she has with any other animal is a sheep.

Nania, a critically endangered forest elephant, became separated from her herd when she was only three months old, and ever since has been hand-reared by wildlife carers in her homeland, Burkina Faso.

But now the hunt is on for her mother, who experts hope is still alive, with the aim of reuniting the pair.

Using DNA analysis of dung, they have already established it is likely that some of her female relatives – and possibly even her mother – have passed through the region.

If the project succeeds, it will be the first time DNA has been used to reunite an “orphan” calf with her herd.

Nania, a critically endangered forest elephant, was found by villagers alone one night in 2018. They pooled their funds to buy her milk before asking the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) to help.

As well as bottle-feeding her around the clock, the carers introduced her to a sheep called Whisty, who became the elephant’s best friend.

But after more than three years of life without her own kind, Nania will be released back into the wild, if her family members can be found.

Earlier this year, forest elephants were officially recognised as an independent species from the savanna elephant, making her survival even more critical, say conservationists.

Both types have suffered dramatic drops in their numbers, African forest elephants falling by more than 86 per cent over 31 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Only a few dozen elephants live in the Deux Balés National Park, where Nania is growing up.

DNA samples were taken from the dung of elephant herds passing through the park for analysis in the US.

“A parent should share 50 per cent of its alleles [genes] with its daughter... So really what we’re trying to do is see in any of these family groups, do we have a parent-offspring or a full sibling or a half-sibling to Nania,” said Sam Wasser, director of the Centre for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington.

Rescuers care for both animals

Results showed a match between Nania and another female, likely to be her mother or another very close relative, who would have passed very close to her enclosure.

The match could be from a half-sibling, although that is less likely.

The dung also showed that the female match also has at least two other close relations, but it did not reveal where that herd is.

The conservationists still need to locate the herd and want to better understand their movements and behaviour.

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Ifaw’s francophone Africa director, was thrilled by the DNA results.

“I was overwhelmed by a strong emotion. All indications are that Nania’s mother is alive! The fact we’ve potentially found not just her mother but also, in all likelihood, her grandmother and aunt, is incredible and really exciting,” she said.

Elephants do remember other elephants, so the wildlife experts hope Nania’s mother and wider family will remember her, including other females that helped care for her.

In the coming months, Ifaw will conduct a census of the elephant population in to better understand the few elephants who call this region home.

Because herds migrate over long distances, it’s not known when they herds will move close.

Another obstacle is that not having grown up with her own kind, Nania will need to gain confidence around wild herds.

But at three-and-a-half years old, she is learning the survival skills she will need, the experts say.

“This is the first known attempt to successfully reunite an African elephant calf with its wild herd using DNA analysis,” said Ms Sissler-Bienvenu.

“Her successful release back into the wild holds the potential for strengthening the population of wild forest elephants in Africa, helping them thrive into the future.”

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