- Tessa Wong (Tessa Wong)
- BBC reporter
In the past 17 months, a group of stray elephants in China have embarked on a rather adventurous journey.
Chinese officials said last week that after leaving the nature reserve hundreds of kilometers, the elephants have embarked on their last journey home.
From breaking into villagers’ homes to giving birth to baby elephants on the road, this is an epic journey, just like the plot in The Lord of the Rings.
This is a story about how the Asian elephant troop goes back and forth.
Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve is located at the southernmost tip of Yunnan, China, adjacent to the border between Myanmar and Laos.
This dense tropical rainforest covers an area of about 241,000 hectares, 1.5 times the area of London, and is home to most of the endangered Asian elephants in Yunnan.
Sometime in March 2020, about 14 elephants decided to leave this jungle paradise and head north.
No one cared at first. As we all know, wild elephants often roam freely and regularly in this area. Pu’er City even opened an “Elephant Canteen” to provide food for elephants “walking and eating groups”.
Usually, the elephants will start to return soon after they have enough time, but a few months after the elephant herd has left, officials begin to realize that this is not an ordinary trip.
Earlier this year, when there were reports that elephants rushed into houses, ate crops and swaggered to drink water, people realized the problem.
Surveillance cameras also captured elephants wandering on the streets of multiple cities, and these images became popular on the Internet.
Even now, experts are still confused about their behavior.
In a paper to be published in the journal Conservation Letters, a group of Chinese experts led by Professor Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz pointed out that the elephant is leaving There are many reasons for home foraging.
One of them is the increase in the number of elephants, which has led to intensified competition for food. Thanks to the efforts of the Chinese government in conservation, the number of elephants in Yunnan has almost doubled in the past 30 years to about 300.
“Now we need to deal with the consequences of this success. This is a real challenge, because elephants have no physical space to move without contact with people, crops or infrastructure,” said the chief of Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. Researcher Professor Campos-Acez told the BBC.
Before the elephants left, an extreme drought that lasted for a year also caused food shortages.
Others pointed out that in the past few decades, deforestation and arable land encroachment have also led to the reduction of elephant habitat outside the national reserve.
Professor Campos-Acez said that the authorities have been working hard to strengthen forest protection, but this may mean that elephants in nature reserves have less food. The thicker forest canopy blocks more sunlight, resulting in fewer edible plants in the underlying vegetation.
When the elephant herd crossed the foothills and forests of Yunnan to the north, Chinese officials began to take action. The local government set up an emergency team to organize thousands of people to guide elephants out of villages and cities.
Elephants are famous gluttons. So far, they have devoured 180 tons of corn, bananas, pineapples and other foods. Even a side-view mirror was torn off by a curious elephant.
The drones that kept tracking the elephants captured some iconic moments, such as a mud bath…
The fight between two little elephants…
There are also baby elephants sliding into the ditch.
In April of this year, two elephants decided to leave the team and return, and the other one got lost in June. Officials worried that it would not be able to survive on its own, and eventually gave it a sedative and sent it home. All three elephants are males and usually prefer to travel alone than females.
But the elephant group also welcomed the new members. Professor Campos-Acez said that at least two elephants were born on the way.
The journey of the elephant group made the Chinese people stunned, and this adventurous journey became a national news and a household name. Many villagers along the way lined up to see them.
Every action of the elephants is closely watched. Not only drones are paying attention to them, but also scientists studying their whereabouts and feces, and even paparazzi go to eat their leftover pineapple.
The elephants also had various “rumors” belonging to celebrities, such as rumors that they were “drunk” after drinking several tons of corn wine, but this was quickly dismissed by experts.
In early June, the group of elephants arrived in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, more than 500 kilometers away from their hometown, which is the furthest place that wild elephants in Yunnan have ever visited.
Some people are beginning to worry about their survival, because the climate here is cooler and the contact with human civilization is more extensive.
In an interview with the BBC, experts said that what many people think of cute behaviors like hanging out in towns and lying down for a nap is actually a manifestation of stress and exhaustion.
To the officials’ relief, the elephants started migrating southward a few weeks later and soon arrived near Yuanjiang.
The authorities stated that within the radius of the elephant herd, there is only one bridge suitable for elephants to cross the river.
The working group sent thousands of soldiers and workers to arrange food as bait, set up electronic fences, create artificial paths, and even sprinkle water on the roads to ensure that the elephants walked up cool enough.
But animals are not so reluctant to take this path. According to reports, after they “wandered”, the original 30-kilometer straight journey became a 143-kilometer trek.
Finally, on August 8, the elephant group awkwardly crossed the Yuanjiang Bridge. Although there are still 200 kilometers away from the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve, local media have announced that they have entered the last leg of their journey.
No one can guarantee that they will go home all the way, and no one can guarantee that they will stay at home for a long time. Shen Qingzhong, a senior engineer at the nature reserve, told the media that “it is almost certain that the elephants will eventually migrate north again.”
After spending millions of dollars to guide elephants home, the authorities promised to establish a “unified protection and management system” and strengthen habitat protection and restoration. The plan to establish a national park for Asian elephants is also speeding up.
However, even if their return home is delayed, the elephants have completed an impossible task, embarked on an epic journey, and raised the world‘s awareness of the plight of endangered species.
Additional reporting by Suranjana Tewari and Wang Yiqing.