For months, their trek through China’s south-western Yunnan province had gone almost unnoticed. But last week, when images of a herd of 15 Asian elephants walking through a residential area appeared on social media, it immediately captured the imagination of the nation, generating intense media interest and sparking questions as to what prompted the epic journey.
The movement was so unusual that authorities dispatched a taskforce of 360 people with 76 cars and nine drones to track it. State TV has spent days following their every footstep. And as of Wednesday, the hashtag #WhyElephantsTrekkingNorth had been viewed more than 16m times on Weibo.
About 500km (300 miles) into their walk, the herd were seen on Tuesday evening 3km away from the major city of Kunming, turning attention onto efforts to keep them away from populated areas.
🇨🇳🐘 Measures taken to keep migrating #elephants away from residential zones in #Yunnan.
🇨🇳🐘 #云南 #野象“旅行团”近日一路北迁，有关部门采取措施全力防范象群迁徙带来的公共安全隐患，确保人象安全。
by 吴歌 via CGTN pic.twitter.com/DDfH26nY2b
— CCTV Asia Pacific (@CCTVAsiaPacific) June 1, 2021
Chinese wildlife authorities have been struggling to understand why the elephants left their natural habitat last year. According to Xinhua, a group of 16 wild elephants embarked on the journey in March 2020. In November, they arrived in Pu’er in Yunnan, where a female elephant gave birth to a baby, and settled there for five months. They then resumed the walk on 16 April. A week later, two left the group, leaving 15 to continue their odyssey to the north.
The appearance of the animals has not always been warmly received by residents in Yunnan. Along the way, they have caused much destruction, eating whole fields of corn and smashing up barns. A car dealer in Eshan county reported last week that six visiting elephants had drunk two tonnes of water in his shop. State broadcaster CCTV has estimated the damage to be at least 6.8m yuan ($1.07m).
Chinese experts said there had been other reports of elephants wandering into villages and harming crops in recent years, with the plants they usually eat gradually replaced by non-edible varieties.
“Large-scale human engineering developments have exacerbated the ‘islanding’ of elephant habitats,” Zhang Li, a professor on mammal conservation at Beijing Normal University told the Global Times . “The traditional buffer zones between humans and elephants are gradually disappearing, and the chances of elephants’ encountering humans naturally increase greatly.”
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Residents and the authorities have been monitoring the elephants’ movements, with hundreds of people mobilised to ensure public safety. Surveillance images show that the herd includes six female adults, three male adults, three sub-adults, and three calfs.
No casualties have been reported so far. On Friday last week, Yunnan provincial forestry and grassland administration told state media that it had tried to prevent the animals from moving further north and help them return to their original habitats, which will be safer – although their route back home was still unpredictable.
The wild elephant population in Yunnan is about 300, up from 170 in 1980, but according to the Global Times, the habitat area has decreased from 2,084 sq km in 1976 to less than 500 sq km in recent years.