On World Rhino Day on Saturday, an animal rescue centre near Kaziranga National Park embarked upon an “elephantine” project to produce the kind of digestible milk that makes relieving easier for elephant calves.
Elephants, despite their size, have a weak digestive system. Rescued calves, deprived of mother’s milk, tend to be lactose-intolerant when fed the closest alternative — Lactogen.
“Dairy milk has much more fat and carbohydrate content than an elephant calf can tolerate. An elephant mother’s milk has very low fat, but we have to depend on Lactogen, though [it is not] not 100% suitable,” Rathin Barman, who heads the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), said.
“We have decided to produce milk suitable for elephant calves. An analysing machine is arriving soon. We are trying to get ingredients such as protein, fat, casein and water for producing elephant milk according to our needs,” he said.
What’s good for elephant calves is better for rhino calves, which are sturdier animals, experts said. But rhino calves at the CWRC and in captive environment elsewhere do not take easily to Lactogen, and some have suffered from diarrhoea.
More worrying for a calf’s ‘foster parent’ or caretaker at the rescue centre is constipation. Some calves take more than 15 days to defecate.
“The survival of a calf depends on his or her defecation, which indicates [that] its digestive system and bowel movements are in order,” Mr. Barman said.
Veterinarians at the CWRC said making a calf, used to mother’s milk, accept the nipple of a customised feeding bottle containing Lactogen is a major challenge. This, though, is easier to manage than making a calf poop.
“A rhino mother potty-trains her calf by taking it to the same dung heap for days. A motherless calf is so distressed that its immune system weakens,” veterinarian Panjit Basumatary said.
Shallow muddy trenches in the rhino section help stimulate the lower abdomen and genital areas of the calves enough to make them poop. If this fails, each calf is made to defecate through intensive care. The ‘lock’ opens once the calf defecates.
Pooping isn’t as much of an issue for the ‘weaker’ elephant calves, which defecate 20-22 times a day.