Each morning, I stumble downstairs to retrieve a newspaper — or even three on Sunday, and possibly more written material clogging my neglected mail cubby — and reflect on this masochistic attraction I seem to have for keeping up with the news during these still mostly depressing times. But one recent morning, back upstairs in my apartment, coffee poured and comfortably settled with that day’s New York Times, I was surprised to find myself smiling over a sweet story about a baby elephant found alone and helpless on a riverbank in Africa.
Smiling? Has the paucity of feel-good news these days turned me into some kind of heartless news junkie? I hope not. No, Elizabeth Preston’s story quickly got into a heartwarming account of the efforts by villagers, schoolchildren, wildlife authorities locally and around the world, international animal welfare organizations, and DNA experts working to assure the elephant’s continued health and safety, and even perhaps enable the orphan’s return to the wild with her biological family.
Some of this seemed vaguely familiar. sending me to my travel journals from African trips in 2004 and 2009 when I accompanied my cousin Dorothy Woodson, then curator of African collections for the Yale University library, now retired. Why haven’t I written more about those wonderful experiences? Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso in West Africa and South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia in the south.
And where was it that I learned about the annual migration of elephants traveling from near the border of Burkina Faso 1,000 kilometers to Duenza in Mali? It is thought to be the longest journey conducted by elephant herds and welcomed as a sign of the coming rainy season.
Reading Ms. Preston’s article, I came to the happy realization that I have been close to the very place where rescuers brought the young elephant after finding her in 2017 wandering alone near Bonomo in Burkina Faso. Only two or three months old, she had been separated from her family just a day or two, according to wildlife experts who said she would not have survived otherwise. When orphan elephant calves are rescued, Ms. Preston wrote, they are usually found near a mother’s carcass, but in this case, no one knew of an adult that had been killed. “Although elephant mothers are extremely attentive, [this baby’s] family left her behind for some reason — perhaps at a nighttime river crossing that the tiny elephant couldn’t manage.”The villagers sought help from the local wildlife authorities who took the elephant to a pen outside their headquarters in Bonomo. There, “local residents pooled resources to buy milk for the elephant, and a drugstore donated powdered infant formula. But the young elephant’s appetite, unlike the funds of the humans helping her, was bottomless, The humans needed help.” Ms. Preston wrote. They reached out to the International Fund for Animal Welfare for help, and the group took charge of the elephant’s care.
Local schoolchildren named the elephant Nania, a word for will and visited daily, along with a black and white sheep named Whisty who became her best friend. DNA analysis indicated that Nania and her relatives are forest elephants, recently recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a distinct species, separate from Africa’s larger and more numerous savanna elephants. It also declared them critically endangered. With that information, the project became “about more than just rehabilitating one young forest elephant, but ensuring the future of her species.”
In February 2019, weaned and no longer requiring bottles of milk, Nania moved into a home specially built for her inside the nearby national park Deux Balés where, Ms. Preston wrote, she could start learning how to be an elephant. It includes a stable where she stays at night, and a large fenced pasture called a boma. Also living there is the “loyal sheep friend Whisty and four keepers who stay in pairs, a week at a time. Each day, the elephant spends six to eight hours roaming the park with her keepers in an effort “to help map the wilderness in her mind and learn where to find water and tasty fruits.”
It is unclear from the Times article whether Nania even realizes yet that she is an elephant. Hanging out with a sheep and her keepers, trying to run after visiting schoolchildren and join their play, and barging into the building where her milk was being prepared — none of that helped in the realization process, and the article says the first time she encountered a herd of wild elephants, she fled.
Orphan elephants have been accepted into herds of non-biological relatives, but the choice is up to the family. “Nania might have a chance to join not just any family of wild elephants but her own,” Ms. Preston wrote, explaining that only about 40 wild elephants pass through that park, and the team from the International animal welfare fund figured that Nania’s family could be among them. To find out, they began sending samples of elephant dung to a lab at the University of Washington in Seattle for DNA testing. The results were startling: According to the lab, “One of the sampled elephants was not just a relative, but almost definitely Nani’s mother.”
Any hoped-for reunion will have to wait now the wild elephants have migrated out of Deux Balés for the rainy season that will end sometime in October when, the Times article notes, “Maybe Nania — a little bigger and fatter, a little more confident — will be ready for the returning elephants.”
And if Nania eventually joins a family — her own or a foster one — the Times article observed, “the international fund team plans to follow up with tracking and more dung sampling to make sure she’s safe — and to learn whether, against all odds, she has found her mother.”
(Boromo is located a few hours southwest of Ougadougou, the country’s capital, where airline scheduling problems caused my cousin and me to stay longer than originally planned. Local people recommended a side trip to Bobo. Heading back to Ouago, as the locals call it, we decided on another side trip to Banfora, about halfway there, where, about 10 kilometers off the highway is the national Parc des Deux Balés where elephants come to get water. At the end of a long dirt road, we found an encampment at the river’s edge with a long deck built over the water and set with tables, chairs and a bar. We stopped for lunch and learned from fellow diners that about 60 elephants had come by a few days before but none since. Had we ventured farther into the park, might we have encountered a young Nania walking with her keepers? One can only dream.)