She has been living the life of an orphan; her family has a long-lost memory.
The closest bond that she has is with a lamb.
Nania, a critically endangered forest elephant, became separated from her herd when she was just three months old. Since then, the wildlife carers have hand-raised her and researched different available resources to help improve Nania’s recovery.
An intensive search is underway to locate her mother, who experts hope is still alive, in the hope of achieving their ultimate goal.
DNA analysis of dung has already established that some of her female ancestors – 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, an endangered forest elephant, was found by villagers on the night of 2018. They put together the money to buy her milk before asking the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) for help.
The caretakers also bottle-fed her around the clock while they introduced her to a sheep called Whisty.
Having been previously taken away from her native habitat, after three years, Nania will need to be released back into the wild if her family members can be found.
Earlier this year, forest elephants were officially recognized 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. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, African forest elephants have significantly declined over the past three decades, with their numbers falling by about 86 percent during that time.
Only a few dozen elephants that still live in the Deux Balés National Park can be found.
DNA samples were taken from elephants dung, who walked through the park in the US for analysis.
“In a family, the parents should give 50% of their genes to their children,” so “we are trying to see how many direct relatives or half-siblings Nania has in these families,” said Sam Wasser, director of the Centre for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington.
Results of the tests showed a match between Nania and another female, most likely her mother or another very close relative.
The genetics of the match could be with a half-sibling, but that is less likely.
The dung showed that the female match also has at least two other close relations, and it did not reveal where that herd might be.
The conservationists have yet to find the herd and want to gather more information.
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Ifaw’s francophone Africa director, was thrilled by the DNA results.
“I felt overwhelmed by a powerful emotion. All indications are that Nania’s mother is alive! While we’ve found the mother, we could find the entire family tree, including her grandmother and aunt. That is an incredible discovery, and it confirms what is already exciting for us.”
Elephants have been known to recognize their kin, and thus the wildlife experts hope that Nania’s mother and other females in her wider family will remember her, including those who helped care for her.
Over the next few months, Ifaw will conduct a population census of the elephants in the hope of better understanding the few that call this region home.
Because herds migrate over long distances, it’s not known when the herds will move close.
Another obstacle is that Nania grew up among humans, so she may not have the same confidence around wild herds as many other calves.
But at the age of three-and-a-half, she is learning the survival skills that she will need.
Ms. Sissler-Bienvenu said, “This is the first known attempt to successfully connect an elephant calf with its natural herd using DNA analysis.”
“Her successful release back into the wild will strengthen the population of wild forest elephants in Africa, helping them thrive into the future.”