top of page

Hand-raising Orphan Asian Elephants

Chapter 1: First Encounter


By Vijitha Perera


This chapter provides important information about what to do if you find an orphaned calf. Included are guidelines for assessing the health status of the calf, when and how to attempt reuniting a healthy calf with its herd, and the importance of transferring the calf to a facility or individual with hand-raising knowledge.

Sections in this chapter include the following: 

  • Introduction

  • Reuniting the calf with the herd

  • First steps for villagers who find an orphan calf

  • Proper protocol for the responding wildlife officer

  • Initial assessment of the calf’s condition

  • First aid measures

  • Transporting the calf


Orphan elephant calf next to collapsed mother

Figure 1.1 This elephant cow collapsed after succumbing to wounds caused by a jaw bomb. Her calf remains close to her. Photo credit: Vijitha Perera

Elephant calves may become orphaned for many reasons. The causes may be natural or anthropogenic (caused by humans). Natural causes include rejection of the calf or the death of the mother, abandonment of weak calves (due to infections or parasites or poor nutrition and sometimes associated with other females kidnapping babies), or disasters such floods.


Anthropogenic causes include separation of calves from mothers when they are being chased or driven, death of a mother due to electrocution, jaw bombs (Figure 1.1), accidents such as collisions with trains or vehicles, poisoning, gunshot wounds etc. Calves may also fall into man-made wells, ditches, or canals.


Injuries from snares can be particularly devastating. Calves can be victims of snares intended for other species such as wild boar, spotted deer, and sambar deer. Adult elephants in the herd will try to break the snare but they are not always successful. If the snare remains attached it often leads to life-threatening infections and often death. 


Many calves found with snare injuries require long-term care in captivity. In cases where the injury is not serious it may be possible to treat the calf while it remains with the herd. However, both mother and calf may need to be sedated and separated from the herd which has high risk. Such decisions can only be made by wildlife officials and wildlife veterinarians.


When elephant calves are orphaned deep in the forest they usually die and are very rarely noticed by humans. The majority of orphan elephant calves found by humans wander into the village or or are found in adjacent jungles shared by both elephants and humans. 

Calves that are abandoned by their mothers and separated from their herd become panicked and may roam aimlessly. Calves only a few days to a few weeks old may not show fear of humans but older calves have a natural fear and will avoid humans or run away. Separated calves will sometimes join buffaloes that are released into the forest for grazing and return to the village with the herd. Buffaloes tolerate elephant calves.

What to do if you find an elephant calf that is alone:

Step 1. Limit the number of people that approach the calf

Step 2. Move slowly and speak quietly

Step 3. Confine the calf or tether (see below)

Step 4. Call the responsible wildlife agency

Reuniting the Calf With the Herd

In cases where the calf is healthy and uninjured, separation from the mother has been recent, and there is evidence that the herd is near, attempts can be made to reunite the calf. This can occur in situations such as when a calf is rescued from a well. The calf should be handled minimally. Bathe the calf if needed with warm water. Make food and water available but do not force. 

The following factors are important: 

  • Select an area that the herd has passed.

  • Position the calf so that the mother can interact with the calf and encourage the calf to join her. This can be a temporary enclosure or biodegradable tethers. See Figure 1.2.

Elephant cal rescued from well.

Figure 1.2 Rescued from an abandoned well, this calf was tethered by tree vines and kept under observation until the elephant herd came back.  Photo credit: Vijitha Perera

  • Observe the calf from a safe place (in a tree for example).

  • Have manpower and equipment available to intervene in case of an emergency (interference from male elephants or rejection of the calf by the herd).

  • If there is intense human activity in the area, the herd may not return until after dark, so observers should be prepared to stay throughout the night. 

  • If the reunion is successful it is very important to monitor the situation a further 2-3 days. There is a chance of an elephant herd taking a calf but the herd may not be the correct one. When they lose interest, the calf becomes an  orphan again.

Note:  Attempts at reuniting a calf with its herd should only be done under the direction of experienced wildlife officers. In most situations, the orphan elephant calf is found when it is in a very weak state often near collapse. In this case there is no point to try to reunite the calf with mother as the separation likely happened several days or weeks ago. Urgent veterinary attention is critical for survival.

First Steps for Villagers who Find an Orphan Calf 


Newly orphaned calves are often very stressed, and they may be thirsty, hungry, in pain, and near exhaustion.


Usually when an orphan calf is found hundreds of villagers gather to have a close look and some try to touch. They try to help the elephant calf by making it stand, offering food, water, milk etc. This makes things worse. While these efforts are well-intended, they may not be in the best interests of the calf. See Figure 1.3.

Therefore, it is very important to report finding an orphan calf to the local agency that is responsible. In most countries this will be the wildlife department. In Sri Lanka elephant matters are managed by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. If the correct agency is unknown contact the local police for help.

Villagers find orphan elephant calf

Figure 1.3 Villagers find a baby elephant without its herd. To reduce stress, it's best to limit the number of people interacting with the calf. Here, there are too many. Photo credit: Vijitha Perera

The responding officer should have knowledge and experience to handle this situation. In Sri Lanka, the officers of the Department of Wildlife Conservation undergo training to handle this situation and they know to contact wildlife veterinarians to get advice.  

Proper Protocol for the Responding Wildlife Officer

Before reaching the scene:

  •  Obtain information about when and where the calf was found and the location of the herd. 

  • Identify a contact from a person at the site where the elephant calf is located. Direct this person to control the situation and advise people what to do and what not to do until officers are able to reach the scene.

Upon reaching the scene:

  • Assess the situation.

  • Ask people to maintain distance and keep the area immediately around the calf calm and quiet.

  • If the calf appears healthy and strong make sure it was tethered in the correct manner. Calves < 1 year old can be tethered using a rope around the neck. Calves > 1 year old can be tethered by a hind leg. If the calf struggles, another rope can be applied to the opposite front leg and the ropes attached to trees in front and behind. The rope material that touches the neck and legs should be cloth. It is best to use biodegradable ropes for tethering. In case of escape, the ropes should break/decompose as soon as possible.

  • Determine if the herd is still in the area and if the calf is strong enough to attempt re-introduction. 

  • If the calf is very weak or has collapsed it is even more important to limit the number of people and keep the area quiet and calm so that there is free air circulation. Calves that have collapsed should be positioned in lateral recumbency (laying on their side).  

  • The field officer should contact the wildlife veterinarian. It is always advisable for the veterinarian to examine the calf as soon as possible. If the veterinarian is unable to come immediately, he/she should advise the field officers or a local veterinarian what to do.

Initial Assessment of the Calf’s Condition

The initial examination may need to very brief if the orphan is very stressed or there are serious injuries. A comprehensive physical can be performed at a later time after the elephant has been stabilized. 

Details on how to assess the calf can be found in the Chapter 2 (Physical Examination and Preventive Health Care).

The initial condition of the calf should be assessed using following indicators:

  • Age/sex 

  • Body condition/nutritional status

  • Pattern of breathing and odor of the breath (pneumonia may have an odor) 

  • Pulse rate

  • Body temperature

  • Degree of weakness 

  • Hydration status 

  • Presence of infected wounds 

  • Presence of bleeding wounds, bruises etc. 

  • Parasite problems (parasites in the feces or external parasites)

  • Condition of the stool (soft, diarrhea) 

First Aid Measures

Place the calf in a quiet, shaded place. 

Any life-threatening conditions such as excessive bleeding, respiratory distress, or shock should be attended to immediately and usually require veterinary assistance. See Figures 1.4, 1.5 and 1.6. If veterinary care is not available, bleeding can be managed by applying pressure to the affected area. A calf that appears to be in shock may benefit from warmth supplied by blankets or by surrounding it with plastic bottles filled with hot water.

If body temperature, respiration and pulse rate is normal, measures should be taken to rehydrate the animal. Oral fluid is the best. Clean warm water, rehydration fluids (jeewani), king coconut water, or fruit juices are recommended.  

Calves may refuse to accept oral fluids. Fluids can be forced using a tube, syringe, or large animal nursing bottle with a nipple. Calves will usually adjust. 

If the calf is too weak and will not accept oral fluids, fluids can be given rectally. The procedure is described in Chapter 9 (Medical Procedures).  

If the calf is collapsed it is always better to place an IV line and administer fluids IV together with other supportive medicines. If an IV line cannot be established, fluids can be given rectally.

If the body temperature is high (> 100° F), IV fluids may help to decrease it. Bathing with warm water can also help to reduce the temperature.  

The elephant calf is usually not ready to accept food initially. After rehydration and when they become calm they will start to eat. There should be some choices for the calf, such as grasses, branches, fruits. If the animal is small (less than 1 year) they will need milk. Human milk formulas such as Nan and Lactogen can be used for elephant calves. Refer to Chapter 4 (Feeding Milk).

Transporting the Calf

Once the calf is stable (temperature, pulse, respiration normal and calf rehydrated), it should be transferred to an appropriate care facility. 

It is best to transport the calf in a wooden box with holes for ventilation. An attendant should always accompany the elephant calf during transporting. The calf should not be transported in hot sun. Evening, night, and dawn are the best time periods for transport.


The calf should be observed regularly to make sure it is comfortable. Every two hours of transport, stop for a 30 minutes rest and give the calf fluids and food. See Figures 1.7 and 1.8.


Figure 1.8 Transport boxes of elephant calves.jpg
Elephant calf rescued from well.

Figure 1.4 Rescued from a well, this baby elephant's injuries included extensive bruising. Photo credit: Vijitha Perera

Elephant snare injury (Myanmar)

Figure 1.5 This snare injury will require many months of confinement and treatment. Photo credit: Myanmar Timber Enterprise

Elephant calf emergency treatment

Figure 1.6 This baby was found collapsed in a tank bed in a National Park in Sri Lanka. The wildlife officers are giving water orally using a funnel and tube. Photo credit: Vijitha Perera

Transporting collapsed elephant calf

Figure 1.7 Transporting a collapsed 1-2 day old calf to the Elephant Transit Home for treatment, rehabilitation, and possible future release back to the wild. Photo credit: Vijitha Perera

Figure 1.8 Transporting baby elephants in wooden boxes.

bottom of page