DNA solves mystery of lost elephant who made friends with goat

·News and Video Producer
·4-min read

DNA testing may have identified an abandoned baby elephant’s mother, leading to hope they could be reunited.

Found alone and dehydrated in 2017 at the end of Burkina Faso’s rainy season, Nania was taken in by villagers who offered the young animal immediate help.

Mystery surrounded how the young female came to be alone, according to not-for-profit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), who have been assisting with her care in the West African nation.

Despite her closeness to Whisty, Nania must learn to become a wild elephant. Source: IFAW
Despite her closeness to Whisty, Nania must learn to become a wild elephant. Source: IFAW

Poachers were excluded as being responsible as there were no adult carcasses found nearby, the group’s Francofile Africa director Céline Sissler-Bienvenu told Yahoo News Australia from Paris.

Nearby communities also advised there had been no conflict between elephants and humans which could have led to the separation.

Investigators thought Nania had been unable to follow her herd as they crossed a fast-flowing river which cuts through Deux Balé National Park.

“We considered that maybe there was a chance that her mother and other relatives were still alive, and we wanted to test that by DNA testing,” she said.

“So we collected wild elephant dung and we sent them to a centre in Seattle at Washington University.”

Sixteen samples were collected over several months and compared to Nania’s DNA, with the results revealed in May.

Samples of elephant poo were collected and sent for DNA testing. Source: IFAW / Getty
Samples of elephant poo were collected and sent for DNA testing. Source: IFAW / Getty

“It’s quite extraordinary to see that from such a small number of samples… we got information that one of the samples could be the mother of Nania,” Ms Sissler-Bienvenu said.

“Two others were probably her grandmother and her aunt.”

Lost elephant makes friends with goat 

While Nania’s carers have been able to provide essentials like 16 litres of vitamin enriched milk a day and protection from predators, the goal is to return her to her original herd.

She has been encouraged to explore the surrounding national park and in the process create an internal map of where to find food and water.

Special permission was granted to bring a goat named Whisty into the ecologically protected zone, in order to give her non-human contact.

The pair are now inseparable and IFAW remain unsure as to whether Whisty will be accepted by the herd when Nania returns to her family.

Forest elephants are listed as critically endangered. Source: Getty
Forest elephants are listed as critically endangered. Source: Getty

Nania was initially scared of the wild elephants, but she has shown increasing interest in them.

“She looked at them, but of course she stayed very close to her keepers,” Ms Sissler-Bienvenu said.

“But at the moment she’s not confident enough to be close to them.”

DNA testing reveals elephant critically endangered

Not only did DNA testing answer questions about Nania’s immediate family, it also shed light on her species, determining she is a critically endangered forest elephant.

Until recently forest elephants were treated as the same species as savannah elephants, however as a result of new genetic sequencing, they are now assessed separately by the IUCN Red List of endangered animals.

The number of remaining forest elephants is unknown, however their population has fallen by more than 86 per cent over a 31-year period, due to habitat loss and poaching.

Nania the elephant has become close to Whisty the goat and her carers. Source: IFAW
Nania the elephant has become close to Whisty the goat and her carers. Source: IFAW

Nania’s best chance of survival in the wild comes from integration into her original herd, so she can learn from her mother.

“The females remain together all (their) lives, so it’s important to bring her to her family” Ms Sissler-Bienvenu said.

“The earlier we can bring her to her native herd, or wild elephants, the best it will be for her.”

Rescuers remain determined to reunite her, working to encourage familiarity when the wild elephants return during their annual migration.

With the rainy season once again approaching, the elephants will soon leave the park and not return until October.

“Each year our window is always very small in the process of brining Nania close to the wild elephants,” Ms Sissler-Bienvenu said.

“The rehab process could be successful next year or take 10 years.

“We don’t know, it’s really a question mark, and we will do our best to be successful as soon as possible.”

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