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Hand-raising Orphan Asian Elephants

Chapter 3: The Nursery Area


By Vijitha Perera and Bhaskar Choudhury

Reviewed by Susan K. Mikota

Sections in this chapter include the following: 

  • Introduction

  • Staffing

  • Location

  • Enclosures

  • Equipment and supplies

  • Hygiene

  • Exercise

Baby elephant sleeping in sand pile.jpg

Baby elephant sleeping in a sand pile in Vietnam. Photo credit: Hollis Burbank-Hammarlund



Orphaned wild elephant calves face serious challenges in the absence of maternal care. Separation from their herd, exposure to a novel environment, and human interaction contribute to psychological and physical stress. For those reliant on maternal milk, inadequate nourishment may lead to rapid exhaustion, dehydration, and even death. Rescued calves often have serious health problems such as malnutrition, infections, wounds, digestive issues, as well as psychological distress. The necessary handling and transportation during rescue operations can intensify their stress.


Raising a single calf away from other elephants is not ideal and a lone orphan should be transferred to a facility that has elephants if at all possible. Calves raised alone may have complications later in life or become too habituated to people.


The initial days of care are critical. Calves below three months of age are often very nervous and need the constant company of the designated caregiver as well as hourly feeding until he/she is stabilized and learns to suckle.


Rescued calves are usually managed intensively by caregivers, till they become stable, start drinking milk and appear active and alert. Until that phase of stabilization is reached, the calf is considered to be in quarantine without the opportunity to mix with other elephants in the camp/rehab center. This aspect can be decided on a case by case basis in consultation with veterinarians.


The nursery facility should be capable of providing medical care to calves with minor health issues as well those that are life-threatening and should have medical supplies and equipment to meet both needs.

The nursery design should address the calf's fundamental requirements: food, water, and shelter. Additionally, it should provide for socialization, play, and exercise. Safety of both the calf and caretaker is paramount. An outdoor area offers fresh air and sunlight, while an indoor space shields the calf from extreme weather and a cozy place to rest.


The nursery area should be warm. Very young calves may have poor thermoregulation.


Creating an environment that replicates as much as possible the care of a mother elephant provides the best environment for the well-being of orphaned elephant calves. A tranquil environment with minimal artificial noises will help the orphan remain calm.


Experienced caregivers are essential for providing gentle handling, reducing stress, and introducing food. Caregivers act as surrogate mothers, companions, protectors, and playmates providing sustenance, companionship, and safety. The emotional bond that forms between the calf and the caregiver provides psychological comfort and aids in the calf's development. Of course, it is always preferable for the calf to have access to adult elephant cows, especially those that have a good record of nurturing young calves.

Figure 3.1 Caregiver bonding with orphan calf.jpg

Figure 3.1 Caregiver bonding with orphan calf

The assigned caregivers should be carefully selected and ideally will have experience. Several caregivers should be chosen so that very young calves have 24-hour companionship and care. Limiting care to only one or two people can be stressful for the staff involved. The calf may become too attached and experience separation anxiety if separated from these individuals and may even refuse to feed  (Emanuelson, 2006).


In the initial days, the caregiver should shield the orphaned elephant calf from disruptions caused by both humans and other animals. This period allows the calf to acclimate to human presence and reduce fear of strangers.


Maintaining a constant and reassuring presence of caregivers is highly beneficial for orphaned elephant calves. While physical proximity to the animal is not always necessary, the perception of caregivers being nearby offers psychological comfort. Therefore, arranging accommodation facilities for caregivers close to the elephant nursery is advisable. This arrangement ensures that caregivers are readily available to provide immediate care, support, and companionship whenever needed. The close proximity of caregivers helps in creating a sense of security for the orphaned calves.


As the calf becomes adjusted to its new situation, gradual exposure to friendly and reliable animals, such as dogs or cows/calves, can offer companionship to a solitary calf. These animal friends can mitigate loneliness and provide comfort. The goal is to establish a supportive and comfortable environment, gradually building the calf's confidence by strategically managing the calf's interactions. As mentioned in the introduction though, raising a single calf should be avoided.


An ideal location for a nursery is near a forest area with a natural population of elephants. Optimal sites feature elements like ponds or streams, woodland, and open grasslands. A raised/elevated area with good exposure to sunlight surrounded by natural vegetation is ideal. Such a location, if available, negates many expensive logistical needs which otherwise have to be created artificially for appropriate husbandry and management.


It is best to place the nursery away from human habitation, while ensuring essential infrastructure such as roads and electricity are available. The chosen area should offer ample space that accommodates both secluded hideouts for the orphan and observation points for external monitoring by the caregiver. The design, landscaping, and construction should prioritize the specific requirements of the animals, ensuring their comfort and well-being. This thoughtful approach allows the calves to experience a natural setting while enabling caretakers and observers to interact with them as necessary. A combination of a closed space/cubicles and access to an open natural enclosed area is ideal for a calf to gradually settle. The nursery area should allow exposure to sunlight and shade. 


Indoor Enclosure

Creating an optimal environment for the well-being of orphaned wild elephant calves requires careful attention to various aspects of their living space. The space requirements for a healthy calf with normal behavior should be tailored to their size and age. A guideline suggests a minimum floor space of 100 square feet for calves up to three months of age, 200 square feet for those between three and six months, and at least 400 square feet for calves over six months. However, offering more space is always preferable for overall health and happiness.


When constructing the nursery, choose appropriate materials. Walls and floors should be easy to clean and disinfect.


Walls constructed with rounded iron bars spaced 10 inches apart prevent the calves from getting stuck, and a height of around four feet prevents escapes or injuries. Alternatively, rounded wooden logs can be used, maintaining their condition to prevent decomposition and insect attacks.


While the iron bar enclosure described in the above paragraph is adequate for young elephant calves, calves older than six months of age may try to climb a 4-foot barrier and may need higher bars. The sand floor is a good substrate for foot health. See Figure 3.2.

Figure 3.2 Rounded bars.jpg

Figure 3.2 Rounded bars.

Figure 3.3 Water container outside.jpg

Figure 3.3 Water container placed outside enclosure

Providing water containers mounted outside of the iron or wood bars but accessible to the calf ensures a constant supply of water. Similarly, placing food outside the bars but within reach prevents trampling and simplifies cleaning. Observe to make sure the calf does not push excessively against the barriers. See Figure 3.3.


Choose a flooring option that provides enough traction to prevent slips and falls, but is also soft. A deep substrate of sand or dirt allows for natural digging and foraging behaviors, and provides cushioning for feet and joints. However, the substrate must be well-drained to maintain a hygienic environment. Concrete floors covered with rubber mats is also an option and may be easier to clean for calves with diarrhea. Cardboard sheets are another option. See Figures 3.4 and 3.5 for examples.


Figure 3.4 Rubber mats.jpg

Figure 3.4 Rubber mats provide a good substrate and are easily cleaned.

Figure 3.5 Calf on rubber mat.jpg

Figure 3.5 Providing a soft surface like rubber mats or rubber carpets can be a simple yet effective way to ensure that elephants calves can rest comfortably.

A layer of shavings covered by a deep straw bedding works well to insulate the calf and to absorb urine and feces between cleanings.


A thick bedding of sun-dried thatch can guard against chilling for sick calves or during winter; rubber mats or natural floors can be cold surfaces and may not be comfortable for sleep. Tying woolen blankets around the calf can also provide warmth. They should be of a size so that they do not become soiled with urine of feces. Burlap bags can also help to protect against cold ground.


A metal roof provides durability and protection from harsh weather, while locally sourced natural roofing materials can also be considered. 


Outdoor Enclosure


When establishing a nurturing environment for orphaned wild elephant calves, pay careful attention to their outdoor enclosure. This area should be as large as possible, ideally spanning several hundred square feet.


Exposure to sunlight helps the calf produce Vitamin D, which is essential for the growth and development of bones and teeth. Sunlight also helps to regulate the calf's sleep-wake cycle and promotes a healthy immune system. Sunlight encourages natural behaviors such as playing, exploring, and socializing with other elephants, which are all important for the calf's physical and mental health.


To further enrich their experience, the enclosure should incorporate various objects that the calf can interact with. Enrichment items like tree branches, rubber balls, wood logs, pieces of rope, and cloth keep the calf mentally engaged and stimulated. These elements mimic the challenges and engagements they would experience in the wild with novel objects. Enrichment is discussed in more detail in the Chapter 7 (Growth and Behavioral Development).

Providing mud and clean water holes can be a great way to promote natural behavior and allow the calf to cool off during hot weather. Bathing also stimulates the digestive system, aids in skin care, and promotes defecation. See Figures 3.6 and 3.7.


Enhancing the enclosure with an area featuring dry soil and sand for dust and sand bathing promotes other natural behaviors that also help with skin care. See Figure 3.8.


Incorporating these elements into the design and functionality of the outdoor enclosure contributes to a holistic and enriching environment for orphaned elephant calves. It ensures their growth, development, and eventual successful reintegration into their natural habitat.


The boundaries of the enclosure can be demarcated using various options. Iron or wood poles, water ponds, stones, or even an electric fence can be considered to delineate the space. This delineation serves a multifaceted purpose – it marks the enclosure's periphery, ensures security, and provides the calves with the opportunity to understand spatial boundaries.


An interesting aspect of this enclosure is the opportunity for controlled human interaction. Over time, animals become accustomed to human presence. Therefore, visitors could be allowed to observe the elephants while they are in this enclosure. However, exercise precaution to prevent interactions that could adversely impact their natural behavior. After a period of habituation, the calves tend to behave naturally, disregarding the presence of observers. The amount of viewing/interaction allowed really depends on the mission of the facility. if the mission is to send the calves back to wild, interactions should be limited to keepers only avoiding all unnecessary interactions. 

Managing Older Orphans

Orphans that are six months of age or older can be quite aggressive initially and may not allow free contact with caregivers. In these situations, the calf can be housed in a stall-type enclosure that provides a window at a height of approximately five feet. This enables two-way viewing by caregivers and the calf and allows the calf to gradually acclimate to the new space. A lower opening can provide a means to provide food and water. Ideally the calf could be shifted to an adjacent stall to allow cleaning.

Figure 3.6 Swimming hole.jpg

Figure 3.6 Calves enjoy swimming.

Figure 3.7 Mud hole.jpg

Figure 3.7 Mud holes offer an opportunity to play and are good for healthy skin.

Figure 3.8 Calf on sand pile.jpg

Figure 3.8 Calf rolling on sand pile.

Such calves can be easily managed if an adult female elephant is available who has a good temperament and has shown compassion towards calves of other mothers. The new calf will bond immediately with her and the whole management will be much easier than managing it alone.

Equipment and Supplies


Supplies and equipment for feeding young orphan calves are described in Chapter 4 (Feeding Milk).


In nature, elephants navigate through a range of challenging weather conditions, including dry spells during droughts, chilly nights, and rainy periods. Although these elements pose difficulties for young elephant calves, they typically receive support and protection from their mothers and the rest of the herd to overcome such challenges. In the nursery setting, artificial care measures must be used.


In instances of cold or wet weather, certain supplies prove indispensable. Blankets and/or heaters offer essential warmth and comfort during such conditions. Elephant calves, especially, require extra warmth and protection when faced with chilly weather. In their natural habitat, adult elephants collaborate to shield the young ones from the cold and wind. When positioning heaters, ensure the calf cannot access the unit or the electrical cord. The heated area should be spacious enough for the calf to move away if it becomes too warm. See Figures 3.9 and 3.10.

Figure 3.9 Elephant calves under heat source.jpg

Figure 3.9 Elephant calves sleeping under heat source.

Figure 3.10 Calves curl up together under a heat source on a cold night.jpg

Figure 3.10 Elephant calves curl up together under a heat source on a cold night.

Cleanliness of both indoor and outdoor enclosures must be maintained and can be more challenging in areas with high rainfall and high humidity. Feces and urine should be removed at least daily. In pen areas with dirt or sand substrate, waste material can be scooped. Such substrates must be replaced periodically to maintain hygiene. Keep the nursery area free of garbage that the calf might ingest.


To maintain cleanliness and hygiene within an elephant pen with a solid floor, a high-pressure water pump can be a useful tool. Its powerful water stream effectively eliminates dirt and debris, facilitating the upkeep of a clean and sanitary environment. In addition to the high-pressure water pump, a well-equipped cleaning arsenal further ensures meticulous hygiene. Alongside the pressure gun, the inclusion of essential items like buckets, brushes, mops, and squeegees are invaluable in addressing different cleaning needs. Each tool serves a specific purpose, from scrubbing surfaces to wiping away moisture, guaranteeing a comprehensive and effective cleaning routine.


By thoughtfully considering and implementing these measures, the nursery environment replicates the natural support and protection that elephant calves would experience within their wild herds.



Exercise fosters physical and psychological well-being. Exercise is essential for muscular and skeletal development, balance and coordination, and build endurance. Exercise contributes to cognitive and social growth, fostering mental enrichment and the refinement of social skills. Emotional and mental growth are nurtured. Exercise positively impacts appetite, thirst, digestive system functioning, and regular defecation.


Exercise may encompass any of the following activities:

  • Walking: Encouraging elephant calves to take regular walks with the caregiver aids in building leg muscles and enhancing balance. Figure 3.11.

  • Obstacle Course: Crafting an obstacle course with elements like logs and tires challenges calves to navigate, improving their strength and coordination.

  • Swimming: Embracing their affinity for water, swimming provides a superb exercise that strengthens endurance and overall fitness. See Figure 3.12.

  • Playing: Play sessions with fellow calves or toys enhance coordination and nurtures social skills. See Figure 3.13.

  • Trunk Exercises: Training the calf to use its trunk for tasks like lifting weights or manipulating objects can build trunk muscles and increase dexterity.

Where land is available, establishing a designated exercise route for elephant calves is encouraged. This involves guiding the calves along nature trails, coupled with the integration of enrichment activities. These walks enhance navigation and exploration skills, and provide a rich and stimulating experience. If there is water along the route, swimming can augment the land-based exercise regimen.


Once an exercise routine has been established, the elephant calf becomes accustomed to this pattern of activities, eagerly awaiting the caregiver’s arrival to embark on these exploratory tours. This deepens the bond between the caregiver and the calf.


Exercise and enrichment are discussed further in Chapter 7 (Growth and Behavioral Development).

Figure 3.11 Mahout walking with orphan calves.jpg

Figure 3.11 Mahouts walking with orphan calves.

Figure 3.12 Swimming is great exercise.jpg

Figure 3.12 Swimming is great exercise.

Figure 3.13 Playing w other calves.jpg

Figure 3.13 Playing with other calves helps to develop social skills.

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