Caixin
Jun 09, 2021 08:21 PM
CHINA

Asian Elephant Herd’s Epic China Trek Shines Light on Human Encroachment

The 15 wild Asian elephants that have captivated the country and the world have resumed their northward journey after resting in a township in Southwest China’s Yunnan province, as their saga highlights the impact of human encroachment on their natural habitat and stumps officials on how best to guide them home.

The elephants, including three calves, were spotted sleeping Monday in Xiyang township in the provincial capital of Kunming. The herd remained in the area after crossing into the city of more than 6 million residents on June 2 and was observed moving again on Tuesday, according to national broadcaster CCTV.

Since leaving their natural habitat in March 2020 in Xishuangbanna, the southern-most prefecture in Yunnan, the elephants have trekked more than 500 kilometers, traveling north through jungles, fields and villages. Over the past 40 days, the herd has damaged 561,333 square meters of cropland, causing nearly 6.8 million yuan ($1.06 million) in economic losses.

Xishuangbanna is known as a safe haven for wild Asian elephants and is home to about 280 who live in the sprawling tropical rainforests. The size of the elephant population in Yunnan is about 300, up from 180 in the 1980s, Caixin has previously reported.

Although wild elephants migrating beyond their habitat is not new, many have wondered why the caravan has marched such a long distance. Many experts have agreed that human intervention is one of the reasons.

Due to increasing human activities such as expansion of rubber tree plantations and farmland, the size of the forests in Xishuangbanna has continued to decline. The destruction of the elephants’ habitat has forced many of them to move out in search of food, Caixin has learned.

Li Zhongyuan, an official at the Xishuangbanna Forestry Office, said when the elephants in Kunming were monitored by drones, they struck out at them with branches held in their trunks, just as they are “very sensitive” to the barking of dogs and the roar of motorcycles. This can lead to irritable and aggressive behavior, Li said.

Wu Zhaolu, a professor at the School of Ecology and Environment Science of Yunnan University, told Caixin the elephants might choose a different route in response to human monitoring and efforts to block them.

“Elephants are quiet animals, and too much intervention will frighten them,” Wu said, adding that when the animals panic, they might not know which way to go.

Endangered Species

The numbers of wild Asian elephants across the 13 countries in South and Southeast Asia where they’re found have plummeted by at least 50% in the past three generations, with human encroachment into their natural habitat causing it to dwindle to just 15% of its historic area, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Loss of habitat, smaller herds, human-elephant conflict and poaching are among the top threats to Asian elephants according to the WWF, which classifies the species as endangered.

Caixin has previously learned that violent encounters between humans and elephants have been reported over about 4,450 square kilometers in Xishuangbanna, or 22.3% of its area.

In 2019, a dozen people were killed by wild elephants in the prefecture, official data shows, compared with 33 over the two decades through 2010. Seven people died in clashes with wild elephants in 2020.

Some believe the migration is simply a natural progression for wild Asian elephants. Guo Xinming, director of the research institute at Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, was quoted by the state-run Xinhua News Agency as saying that while he once thought the migration was due to a lack of food in their native habitat, the areas they’re passing through have even less.

Therefore, considering the nature of wild animals, they are likely driven by a desire to search for a new suitable habitat that can sustain them, Guo said.

The elephants’ odyssey has attracted intense media attention in China, where the hashtag #15-Asian-elephants-in-Yunnan-are-trekking-north# on social media platform Weibo has 140 million views and 190,000 comments, and around the world, with outlets including CNN, the BBC and Le Monde running stories on their trek.

Authorities have formed a task force of more than 300 people to follow the elephants. Some are responsible for feeding the animals, while others set up electronic fences around them. They are also using drones and foods such as pineapples and corn to help track and direct the elephants southwest, the route home.

A staff member at the Yunnan provincial headquarters set up to manage the elephant migration told Caixin the purpose of tracking the elephants is to protect their safety and the humans in their path.

Unprecedented

With no previous experience to draw on, “We are very careful, and can only ensure the safety of both sides at any cost,” said a staff member at the province’s forestry and grassland bureau.

Some have suggested the wild elephants be anesthetized as soon as possible and sent back to their traditional habitat. However, Professor Wu from Yunnan University, told Caixin that anesthetization poses great risks for both animals and humans, thus should only be used as a last resort.

He elaborated that on one hand, the operation is “very difficult,” which may lead to elephant deaths. On the other hand, the approach may intensify the interaction between humans and elephants, resulting in further conflicts.

This was echoed by Jiang Zhicheng, a coordinator of a project studying conflict between humans and elephants at the Alashan Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology. Jiang said elephants value their families highly. Separating adult elephants from their babies will “definitely” prompt the parents to go looking for their children, which may endanger people nearby.

Although it remains unclear how to protect the animals, some have said the northward-bound elephants should be left in Kunming, where they will be protected. However, Professor Wu rejected the suggestion and said the former rainforest-dwelling elephants are unable to adapt to the local climate and may die out.

“If we force them to stay here, they will be a small single group with no way to communicate with other herds of elephants, and may be extinct in a few decades,” Wu said.

Contact reporter Wang Xintong (xintongwang@caixin.com) and editor Lu Zhenhua (zhenhualu@caixin.com)

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