Photo taken in Riau, Indonesia


Photo taken in Riau, Indonesia

Photo by: Perry Gunawan / EyeEm

Perry Gunawan / EyeEm

Using DNA to Reunite an Orphaned Elephant with her Mother

After villagers found a tiny elephant wandering alone, scientists began the search for her mother using DNA matching technology.

September 13, 2021

In September 2017, villagers found a 2–3-month-old elephant wandering around alone and dehydrated in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

Experts predict the elephant was discovered within a day or two of being separated from her family or she wouldn’t have survived.

The villagers brought the baby elephant to a pen outside a local wildlife headquarters in Boromo. Rehabilitating an orphaned elephant is a major undertaking, but the organization saw promising signs — the elephant calf remained physically healthy and didn’t seem depressed.

The local community rallied around the baby elephant. Children at a nearby school named her Nania, or “will.” They played with her every day. Locals pooled their resources to buy her milk, and a neighborhood drugstore donated infant formula.

Baby elephant feeding from a bottle of milk in Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage near Nairobi Kenya


Elephant calves drink up to 20 pints of milk a day.

Photo by: tr3gi


Elephant calves drink up to 20 pints of milk a day.

After reaching out to the International Fund for Animal Welfare for help, Nania’s new residence was completed in February 2019, including a stable and large pasture in Deux Balés.

Nania flourished with her caregivers, who acted as surrogate parents playing with her for 6-8 hours a day. After being weaned off milk, Nania was ready to start the process of being reintegrated into a wild elephant group.

Helping a lone elephant rejoin the wild is no simple task — will they be able to find food for themselves, avoid danger, and eventually have offspring of their own?

Getting wild herds to adopt elephants is actually a process the animals do naturally. About 20% of herds include nonrelatives who act like family. As long as a herd is receptive to them, elephants can integrate into other families that aren’t their own biologically.

Nania’s caretakers were hopeful that Nania might have the opportunity to reintegrate into not just any herd of elephants, but her own family.

A team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare began collecting dung samples from the 40 wild elephant tribes that pass through the area. By 2020, scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle were analyzing the elephant dung for DNA in a lab.

Then one day, the lab found a surprising result: the DNA was a match. One of the sampled elephants was not just a family member of Nania, but almost surely her mother.

Amboseli National Park is located in southwestern Kenya directly on the border with Tanzania.


Forest elephants travel in much smaller herds.

Photo by: Sebastian Condrea

Sebastian Condrea

Forest elephants travel in much smaller herds.

Not only did they find her mother, but through the DNA, the scientists discovered that Nania is a forest elephant. Forest elephants are endangered, which makes the importance of saving Nania that much greater.

For now, the wild elephants have migrated out of Deux Balés for the rainy season, but they will be back in October. The hope is by then Nania, a little bit bigger, stronger, and older, will be ready to join the herd.

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

Next Up

How Spider Geckos Survive in the World’s Hottest Desert

Missone's spider geckos live in earth’s hottest landscape– Iran’s Lut Desert. What is the key to their survival?

Is Climate Change Killing More Elephants than Poachers?

Kenya’s Wildlife and Tourism Board has announced that climate change is now a bigger threat to elephant populations than poaching. Kenya is currently facing an extreme drought that is threatening the livelihoods of people and wildlife within the area.

Channel Islands: A Tale of Two Worlds

Channel Islands National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the United States, yet it is only about 20 miles from the coast of Los Angeles and the bustling surf and sand lifestyle of Southern California.

Forest Projects Will Help Rebalance Earth’s Climate

Forests might be the best tool humanity has to tackle climate change. Trees give cooling shade, absorb and store carbon dioxide (CO2), recycle water, and provide habitat for other plants and animals. Huge international projects like the Trillion Trees initiative believe planting forests will ultimately help to rebalance Earth’s climate.

Two Orcas Are Hunting Great White Sharks in South Africa

A killer whale duo has been killing great white sharks off the Gansbaai coast, causing them to flee the area. These orcas have developed a taste for shark livers, transforming the local marine ecosystem.

Bald Eagles Made a Comeback But Now They’re Under Threat Again

The resurgence of bald eagles in American skies has been touted as one of the biggest conservation successes in the country – but now scientists say the birds are being poisoned by lead.

Saving Hawaii’s Native Species

Not so very long ago, Hawaii was a remote island, populated solely by endemic flora and fauna–and its native inhabitants. Now, however, it is known throughout the world as a must-visit tourist destination, while Americans have moved to the islands in their masses, buying up beachfront properties.

Galápagos Giant Tortoises Are Mysteriously Turning Up Dead in Ecuador

Despite the tough protections, there has been a spate of tortoises killed in recent months, and officials fear the animals have been slaughtered for their meat.

If A Bat Were To Bite You In Your Sleep, You'd Probably Never Know

Rabies is rare, but most cases are associated with bats.

How Frogs Boost Their Sex Appeal

Male frogs form ‘boy bands’ to serenade females and woo them into their mating pool.