Long elephant walk adds urgency to China’s conservation efforts

A herd of wild elephants marching through villages and towns in southwest China’s Yunnan Province has caused a frenzy among fans online, adding to the urgency of the country’s efforts to protect the animals’ natural habitats.

Last spring, 16 Asian elephants began walking north from a nature reserve in Xishuangbanna, a tropical region on the border of Myanmar and Laos in the south of the province.

By June, the group, now down to 15 years old and including a newborn calf, had driven 500km near Yunnan’s sprawling capital Kunming. In the process, they became a national obsession.

Chinese media are checking in on the herd daily, sharing the latest videos from drones and surveillance cameras of elephants roaming tea plantations and on main streets.

A fleet of chariots and an army of officials were mobilized to escort the elephants. On one day this month, authorities dispatched 360 police and emergency response personnel, 76 police cars and dump trucks, five excavators and nine drones, and fed the elephants 16 tons of food, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Although some users on the Twitter-like Chinese microblogging platform Weibo noticed the damage elephants had done by smashing doors in search of food, most of them focused on images of sleeping elephant calves clustered around their mother or noted the creatures’ intelligence.

In one widely shared video, an elephant walks to the front gate of a village house and uses his trunk to turn on a faucet so the herd can drink.

In another case, an elephant calf appeared to get drunk from eating fermented grain, inspiring a local musician to write a song about fermented elephants of Yunnan.

As the herd approached Kunming, Chinese experts urgently discussed the exact reasons for the migration and how to deal with the elephants that roam the perimeter of a city with a population of 8 meters.

Zhao Huaidong, former director of the IFAW Asian Elephant Protection Project in Xishuangbanna, which educates local villagers on how to handle elephants safely, described the herd’s migration to the north as “very unusual” because it did not follow a steady route.

“In the past 20 years, protection of Asian elephants has meant their numbers have increased, but the decline of virgin forests outside protected areas has reduced their living space and caused elephants to spread to areas where humans are active,” he said.

The renewed interest in elephant habitat comes as Kunming prepares to host the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity in October. Environmentalists hope that China will use this opportunity to strengthen commitments to protect endangered wildlife and expand nature reserves.

Wild Asian elephants resting near Kunming, China

Conservationists said that the fact that the elephant herd was able to move through villages unmolested represented a step forward in preserving the protected species in China compared to the past.

Asian elephants have the highest level of species protection in China. Hundreds of years ago, herds roamed far into what is now central China, but in recent decades the country’s population of about 300 elephants has been confined to Yunnan Province.

Local authorities launched a campaign to keep the animals away from Kunming. They blocked roads and laid trails of pineapple, sweet corn, and other foods to lure the animals away from densely populated areas.

Zhou Jinfeng, director of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, warned that attempts to bring elephants back would be a wrong approach, and could lead to a greater risk of clashes with humans.

“My suggestion is that we should not stop their migration completely, but rather that migration corridors should be created,” he said.

According to Zhou, the villagers’ tolerance and lack of violence towards elephants was a marked departure from the past and a positive sign of acceptance of the protected species. “That’s something that made me particularly comfortable,” he said.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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