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Hand-raising Orphan Asian Elephants

Chapter 6: Feeding ~ Introducing Solid Food


By Bhaskar Choudhury

Sections in this chapter include the following: 

  • Introduction

  • Introducing forage, browse, fruits, and vegetables

  • Coprophagy

  • Feeding concentrates

Figure 6.1 Young calf sampling browse.jpg

Figure 6.1 Young calf sampling browse



Calves in the wild depend on milk for at least the first two years of life. During their first three months of age, however, calves will begin to play with grass and browse as they begin to practice their feeding skills (Figure 6.1). Their manipulation abilities increase between three and six months of age, and by six to nine months of age they can pull up grass and put it in their mouths.

Introducing forage, browse, fruits, and vegetables

Even though calves may not actually eat vegetation in their first few months, they should still be exposed to grass and browse so that they can gain prehension skills. Calves can either be taken to natural areas for browsing or natural fodder can be presented to them to play with. 

Calves with natural mothers will pick up twigs and leaves put them into their mouths, chew and spit them out initially. Orphan calves raised with older calves will do the same. They seem to prefer dry leaves, young shoots of Cynodon and Crysopogon species at first (Figure 6.2). They can be offered young shoots or young leaves of species like Bohunia during the night. Based on availability of wild figs, Dellinea species (common name elephant apples) can be offered. At first, they may only chew and play with these but actual ingestion will gradually follow. Feces can be monitored closely for changes in color and consistency to assess how well the greens are digested. Visible changes in consistency and color are generally noted after 16-18 months of age. See Figures 6.3 to 6.5.

Offering natural browse plants is preferable but locally available fruits and vegetables can also be offered in small amounts, chopped in small pieces to prevent choking. High sugar fruits and sugar cane should be avoided as well as densely fibrous items like banana stems.

Figure 6.2 Calves prefer young shoots of short grass.jpg

Figure 6.2 Calves prefer young shoots and short grass

Figure 6.3 Feces of a year old calf fed only milk.jpg

Figure 6.3 Feces of a year-old calf fed only milk

Figure 6.5 Feces of a five year old elephant calf.jpg

Figure 6.5 Feces of a five-year-old elephant calf

Figure 6.4 Change in feces consistency and color in an 18 month old calf.jpg

Figure 6.4 Change in feces color in an 18-month-old calf

Figure 6.6 Young calf eating dung.jpg

Figure 6.6 Young calf eating dung (coprophagy)



Coprophagy is the consumption of feces (Figure 6.6). Mother-reared calves will normally ingest feces of adult elephants. This behavior is believed to contribute to the development of a healthy gut microbiome. Asian elephant calves raised by natural mothers in captivity are observed to begin coprophagy at the age of about six to ten weeks, whereas feces must be presented to rescued orphans to facilitate this natural behaviour. Acceptance between calves can vary regardless of whether they are raised alone or together with older calves.

Feeding Concentrates


Introducing concentrates into the diet can reduce the quantity of powdered milk that is needed, which can save money without a loss of nutritional value if done properly. Concentrate food can be introduced at about six months of age as long as the growth pattern of the calf has been good. A stable GI tract with well-formed feces and a weight gain of about 800 grams to one kilogram a day between birth and six months of age is considered a good growth pattern.


Choosing a concentrate food is largely based on the local availability while also considering the proximate composition to formulate a balanced diet for the calf. Chick pea, ragi, wheat, maize, and par-boiled rice are the preferred choices in India. Whole grains can be bought and stored in bulk and the required quantity can be ground daily and offered with the milk formula, beginning with the addition of ~ 5 grams (1 teaspoon) at each feeding. The required quantity to be given is measured according to the requirements of the calf, keeping the milk formula stable. See Table 6.1 for options.


Commercially available feed supplements can be added to fortify the concentrate feed. Commercially available multivitamin and multi-mineral mixtures can also be added to fortify the formula at the rate suggested for young foals or calves. Avoid products with an offensive odor.

Table 6.1 Concentrate ingredients.jpg

Maize is a high energy grain for higher content of starch (about 70%), 85-90% TDN, and about 8-12% protein, fair source of vitamin E  can be rich in select micronutrients such as Zn, Fe, Mn, niacin, folic acid and choline (Animal Nutrition Booklet, NDDB 2012).

Bengal gram is used as a source of protein with crude protein = 17.1 g/100 gm, crude fat = 3.9g/100 gm, and fat = 5.3g/100gm. It is high in Ca, P, Mg, Fe, Zn and beta carotene, Vit B1,B2, (MOEFCC, 2018).

​Calves older than a year of age can be taught to drink milk from a pail, which is an easier method of introducing solid food along with milk. Once the calf is taking the fluid easily, the quantity of concentrate food can be increased.

Pail feeding will also help to make weaning easier. Milk can be gradually decreased while simultaneously increasing the concentrate food until weaning is complete at 24-30 months of age.  This will largely depend on the growth of the calf and how efficiently it is using the trunk in feeding from the pail. See Figure 6.7.


Older calves (three years of age or more) can be offered only the concentrate mixture together with quality forage throughout the night and day. This is in addition to whatever the calf consumes  during the daily forest acclimatization walks (Figure 6.8). Using a concentrate mixture also helps in supplementing minerals and vitamins together easily.


In an ideal situation, calves of different age groups should be raised together where the younger ones automatically share a few bites with older ones. Care should be taken that there is no aggression of older calves towards the younger ones while feeding. If such events are witnessed, the number of pails should be increased.

Figure 6.7 Calves taking concentrate from buckets.jpg

Figure 6.7 Calves taking concentrate from buckets

Figure 6.8 Calves of various ages taken to forest for foraging.jpg

Figure 6.8 Calves of various ages taken to the forest for foraging


Nutritional value of commonly available feeds and fodders in India, Animal Nutrition Group, National Dairy Development Board, Anand, Gujrat, July 2012.


Project Coordinator’s Report 2021-22 All India Co-ordinated Research Project on Chickpea ICAR-Indian Institute of Pulses Research Kanpur- 208 024.


Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MOEFCC) Biology of Chickpea, 2018.

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