A herd of wild elephants passing through villages and towns in southwest China’s Yunnan Province sparked a frenzy among admirers online and added urgency to the country’s efforts to protect the natural habitat of animals.
Last spring, 16 Asian elephants began walking north from a nature reserve in Xishuangbanna, a tropical region bordering Myanmar and Laos to the south of the province.
By June, the group, now down to 15 and including a newborn calf, had traveled 500 km, near Yunnan’s sprawling capital, Kunming. In the process, they have become a national obsession.
Chinese media checked the herd daily, sharing the latest footage from drones and security cameras of elephants roaming the tea plantations and shopping streets.
A fleet of vehicles and an army of officials were mobilized to escort the elephants. On one day this month, authorities sent 360 emergency response and police personnel, 76 police cars and dump trucks, five excavators and nine drones and gave 16 tons of food to the elephants, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Although some users of the Chinese Twitter-like microblogging platform Weibo noted the damage elephants inflict on smashing doors in search of food, most focused on images of sleeping elephant calves. huddled around their mother or noted the intelligence of the creatures.
In a widely shared video, an elephant walks to the front door of a village house and uses its trunk to turn on a tap so the herd can drink.
In another, a baby elephant appeared to have become poisoned while eating fermented grain, inspiring a local musician to write a song about the drunken elephants of Yunnan.
As the herd neared Kunming, Chinese experts urgently debated the precise causes of the migration and how to deal with stray elephants on the outskirts of an 8m town.
Zhao Huaidong, former director of IFAW’s Asian Elephant Protection Project in Xishuangbanna, which teaches local villagers how to handle elephants safely, called the herd’s migration north as “very unusual” because it does not did not follow a fixed route.
“Over the past 20 years, the protection of Asian elephants has meant that their numbers have increased, but the decline of virgin forest outside protected areas has reduced their living space and caused the elephants to spread to areas where humans are active, ”he said.
The renewed attention to elephant habitats comes as Kunming prepares to host the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in October. Environmentalists hope China will take the opportunity to step up commitments to protect endangered wildlife and expand nature reserves.
Asian elephants enjoy the highest level of species protection in China. Hundreds of years ago, herds roamed far and wide in what is now central China, but in recent decades the country’s population of around 300 elephants has been confined to Yunnan Province. .
Local authorities have launched a campaign to keep animals away from Kunming. They blocked roads and made trails for pineapples, sweetcorn and other foods to attract animals away from densely populated areas.
Zhou Jinfeng, director of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, warned that attempting to repel elephants would be the wrong approach and could lead to an increased risk of clashes with humans.
“My proposal is that we should not completely stop their migration but rather establish migration corridors,” he said.
According to Zhou, the villagers’ tolerance and lack of violence towards elephants was a marked change from the past and a positive sign of acceptance of protected species. “It was something that particularly relieved me,” he said.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing