Sam Wasser, UW Biology Research Professor and Director of the Center for Conservation Biology, was quoted in an article in The New York Times on reuniting an orphan elephant with her family.
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.
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.