A team of South African and Zimbabwean scientists is trying to develop a formula to mimic elephant milk as poaching leaves an increasing number of calves at risk of dying without their mothers.
Mortality rates are as high as 40 per cent in orphaned elephants, with many dying from diarrhoea caused by an imperfect diet.
Most conservationists trying to rear elephants use a formula milk mixed with coconut oil to mimic the fatty quality of elephant milk, but in the wild, where female elephants nurse calves for about three years, the composition of the milk changes to a greater extent than in other mammals, making it hard to replicate.
Scientists have struggled to obtain enough elephant milk from which to develop a formula because lactating mothers are particularly aggressive and stop producing milk unless a calf is suckling. However, a tame elephant called Shorty, who lives at a safari lodge south of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, has been co-opted to provide fortnightly samples of milk over the past year that have been frozen and shipped to South Africa for an expert to study.
Lisa Marabini, a vet from the Zimbabwe-based Aware Trust, said the aim would also be to produce a faithful and affordable formula, since at present elephant calves are the second most expensive animals to rear after giant pandas, requiring about 12 litres of milk a day.
She said that Shorty was looked after by four handlers who had built up a close enough relationship to allow them to harvest her milk while her calf was feeding.
“We were looking for potential candidates and realised that she was about to give birth,” Ms Marabini said. “It’s only thanks to this particular elephant’s incredible temperament that we are able to do this.”
Not only is milking Shorty challenging but delivering the samples poses further problems, with researchers having to source dry ice from outside Zimbabwe to preserve their samples before they travel to South Africa with specialist couriers.
There, the samples are studied by Garry Osthoff, a food biochemist at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. He is investigating the changes in Shorty’s milk over two years and hopes to produce an appropriate formula for every year of an elephant calf’s life.
“Elephants’ milk is completely different from any other milk that we know,” Professor Osthoff said. “Apart from fats and sugars differing from other species, the milk composition changes over lactation to a much greater extent than that found in other mammals. This means that a single surrogate milk formula will not do. At least four formulas will have to be designed.”