They may be looking for better food. Perhaps they have been lost. Maybe they are just adventurous and have a good time.
No one is sure. But for whatever reason, a herd of 15 Asian elephants has been plodding through China for more than a year, traveling more than 300 miles through villages, patches of forest and, at 9:55 p.m. Wednesday, the edges of the Kunming city, population of 8.5 million.
Since leaving the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve on China’s southwest border with Laos in the spring of last year, elephants have trotted through the middle of a narrow county street. past a closed car dealership and gaping residents. They have reached the deposits of grains left over from fermentation, which has led to reports of at least one drunk elephant. Have devoured trucks loaded with corn and pineapples They were shut out by government officials in an effort to divert them to less populated areas, and then continued on their way.
It is the most distant known elephant movement in China, according to experts. Where they will go next, nobody knows. When will they stop? So confusing.
“It makes me think of the movie ‘Nomadland,'” said Becky Shu Chen, a consultant to the Zoological Society of London who has studied the interactions between elephants and humans.
The truth is that they have captivated Chinese social networks, shaken local officials and caused more than 1.1 million dollars in damage. They have also left elephant researchers scratching their heads.
Experts urge the public to temper their delight with awareness of ecological importance, in a country where avid enthusiasm for conservation has not necessarily matched a calculation of what it will mean to live alongside more elephants.
“This is part of the deal,” he said. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, Principal Investigator at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, specializing in elephants. “We want to conserve elephants and tigers. But we don’t have 10,000 square kilometers to put these elephants and tigers and say, ‘Be happy there, don’t worry.’
The journey appears to have started last March, when 16 elephants were seen moving north from the nature reserve towards the city of Pu’er in southern Yunnan province, according to state media.
But movement is normal for elephants, which have large “home ranges” through which they travel in search of food or a mate, said Dr. Campos-Arceiz. So it wasn’t until relatively recently that researchers and government officials began to realize just how far this herd had wandered. In April, elephants were spotted around Yuanjiang County, about 230 miles north of the nature reserve.
By then, some elephants had turned around, while others had been born, according to authorities. The group now consists of 15 animals.
It is not clear what prompted the elephants to leave their home. But after conservation efforts, China’s elephant population has grown in recent years, from less than 200 several decades ago to around 300 today, according to official statistics. (Researchers say the actual numbers are unclear.) At the same time, deforestation has reduced their habitat.
The increasing proximity of elephants to humans, and their strictly protected status, has emboldened the animals, according to Dr. Campos-Arceiz. And they are smart: When they began to push the boundaries of nature reserves and cross into more populated areas, they found that the crops were more attractive than their usual forest fee.
“The elephants learned that there is so much food, that it is so nutritious, so easy to harvest and safe,” Dr. Campos-Arceiz said. “This means that the elephants have been returning to places where they had been absent for a long time.”
As a result, it is not surprising to see elephants roaming beyond their usual habitats, he said, and the phenomenon is likely to continue as their population continues to grow. (In fact, Dr. Campos-Arceiz rescheduled an interview Wednesday night because he was in the Xishuangbanna Gardens in the dark, following another herd of elephants that had wandered about 40 miles from their range.)
However, that does not explain the long-distance movement of the “wild elephant herd north,” as the other herd is known on social media.
“I have no idea,” Dr. Campos-Arceiz said why the group had not yet settled in one place. “Don’t trust anyone who gives you a very clear answer.”
The lack of clarity has in no way dampened the public’s enjoyment of the long march of the animals. Social media users have lulled videos of an older elephant rescuing a calf that fell into a gutter. They have suggested that if the elephants hurry, they will arrive in Beijing in time for the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial next month. Even Xinhua, the state news agency, has jokingly referred to the herd as a “group of tourists.”
On Thursday, the hashtag “northbound wild elephant buffet site” was trending on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, after residents of a village near Kunming prepared carts of corn stalks for them.
While acknowledging the fun of the public, the government has warned people to stay away from animals, reminding them that they can be dangerous. The wandering herd has yet to injure humans, but there were more than 50 Asian elephant-related casualties between 2011 and 2019. according to state media.
Local officials have been quick to draw up “Emergency Plans for the Prevention and Prevention of Elephant Accidents.” They have been tracking the elephants’ movements with drones and dispatched hundreds of workers to evacuate residents, put up emergency barriers and reserve 18 tons of food.
But there is no long-term plan yet.
In an ideal situation, said Ms Chen from the Zoological Society of London, the elephants would return to Xishuangbanna alone. But there is no guarantee: in India in the early 2000s, dozens of elephants roamed to a river island inhabited by humans and despite efforts to bring them to unpopulated areas, they still roam nearby today as “homeless stove. “
The best-case result, Chen said, would be the attention the herd has drawn to raise more awareness of the possibility of a human-elephant conflict, which is likely to increase. Only by preparing people for that reality, he said, will conservation efforts really succeed.
“What we have to learn is not how to solve the problem, but how to increase tolerance,” he said. “How can we take advantage of this event so that everyone pays attention to the issue of coexistence between people and animals?”
Joy dong contributed to the research