This Mother's Day, San Diego Zoo Elephant Moms Are Using Their Milk to Help Orphan Elephants

·2 min read

Courtesy San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

This Mother's Day weekend, two elephants at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance's Safari Park are giving back.

For years, wildlife care specialists at the Safari Park have closely worked with female African elephants Umngani and Ndulamitsi to form relationships built on kindness and trust. Now, these strong bonds may go on to help orphan elephant calves.

Recently, when both of the elephants welcomed calves of their own and started lactating, the animals felt comfortable enough with their caretakers to allow the humans to take samples of their milk several times a week, according to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA). Having access to an elephant mother's milk provides an exciting opportunity for the SDZWA and conservationists worldwide.

Courtesy San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

"Umngani and our other mother elephant, Ndula, have been trained through positive reinforcement to allow us to collect milk from them," Mindy Albright, a senior wildlife care specialist at the Safari Park, said in a statement. "Not a lot is known about African elephant milk, and we have this wonderful opportunity to collect milk from not one but two nursing mothers at the same time."

Courtesy San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is now able to learn more about the chemical structure of an elephant mother's milk. The hope is that SDZWA, along with their partners at the University of California San Diego and the Smithsonian's National Zoo Milk Repository, can use this information to develop a baby formula that will easily provide the orphan elephants claves of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya with the nutrition they need to grow up healthy and strong. Keepers could also use the same formula with baby elephants that need to be hand-reared to survive.

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"Mother's milk is considered the best source of elephant calf nutrition, but unfortunately, in some cases, we need to assist-rear animals," Katie Kerr, Ph.D., a nutritionist at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. "The data on the composition of African elephant milk is limited. Understanding nutritional composition of this milk is integral to increasing survival of young calves in these situations, and the opportunity for older calves to thrive."

Courtesy San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

The SDZWA is working now to create this option. Until then, SDZWA is offering the orphan elephants of Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, established by the Northern Rangelands Trust, support in different ways. Reteti Elephant Sanctuary and SDZWA regularly exchange information about their elephant youngsters to help each other create healthy care methods. SDWZA also regularly donates to anti-poaching efforts to keep more elephants in their natural habitats instead of orphanages and zoos.