Under Threat From Endangered Elephants

2018-03-01 13:36:21

YUNNAN, Southwest China — Yin Shuangquan vividly recalls the chaos on the highway near his home in Mengwang Township last November. A male elephant stomped onto the road and pushed against seven cars after flipping over one vehicle and shattering the windshield of a minibus with its head. “There were passengers on the bus,” Yin recalls. “They were screaming and shouting in terror when the windshield was smashed.”

Elephant sightings and attacks have become more frequent in Yunnan province in recent years. Two years ago, a herd of elephants instilled fear in residents of Guanping Village, 90 kilometers from Mengwang. Bordering Guanping is Wild Elephant Valley, a scenic area located within the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve.

Wild elephants in Yunnan province have been known to wander into villages during mating season. After several attacks — some fatal — the local government installed fences and warning systems to protect villagers from the endangered animals. By Wang Wanchun, Zhang Ruixue, and Wang Jiachen/Sixth Tone

On a summer night in 2015, seven wild Asian elephants charged onto the property of Wang Chaogui and his wife, Hu Yuzhi. When the elderly couple heard tiles falling from the roof of their kitchen, which is detached from the house, Hu ran out to see several elephants as tall as her front door eating the maize piled up outside the kitchen — the couple’s food supply. In the darkness, the two tried to scare the elephants away, Wang shining his flashlight into their eyes and Hu clanging metal plates together. “I shouted at the elephants, ‘Leave some for me!’” recalls 73-year-old Hu, but to no avail. The elephants knocked down three cypress trees in the courtyard and ate all the maize before finally leaving around midnight.

If they are frightened frequently, then the elephants will become hostile.

Weighing an average of 4 tons — the heaviest can weigh up to 5 tons — and measuring around 2.7 meters tall, Asian elephants roamed China in ancient times. But illegal poaching and damage to their habitats by humans led to a sharp decline in their population to just over 100 in the 1980s, all living in Yunnan. In 1986, the International Union for Conservation of Nature added the Asian elephant to its Red List as an endangered species. In 1989, China declared it a first-grade nationally protected animal.

But for residents of Xishuangbanna, the elephants’ existence has cast an unshakable shadow over their lives.

For centuries, Asian elephants have made their home in this subtropical part of the country. But farming and encroaching development have forced them out of their natural habitat. In recent years, Asian elephants have frequently been seen wandering into villages, stirring up chaos and causing destruction. Conflicts between humans and elephants have intensified as the animals have become immune to human tactics to keep them away.

Lighting torches, banging cymbals and drums, and setting off firecrackers used to be enough to scare away the elephants, says Guanping villager Wang. But now, these methods have no effect. Generally speaking, Asian elephants don’t attack humans unless provoked, according to Wang Qiaoyan, a senior engineer at the scientific research institute under the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve’s management and protection bureau. Yet the animals’ temperament can change dramatically if they are chased or scared by people. “They’ll be fine if they’ve just been frightened once, since they will have time to recover,” says Wang Qiaoyan. “But if they are frightened frequently, then the elephants will become hostile.”

A group of elephants walk into a village in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan province, Feb. 16, 2013. Dai Zhenhua/VCG

A group of elephants walk into a village in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan province, Feb. 16, 2013. Dai Zhenhua/VCG

The wild elephants’ repeated attacks have taken a heavy toll on both the lives and incomes of villagers. The management and protection bureau has confirmed that a compensation mechanism is in place but did not elaborate. However, one local, Zhou Meiying, says that if an elephant tramples 1 mu (around 666 square meters) of maize, the management and protection bureau will pay the farmer 400 yuan ($60) in compensation — 500 yuan if it’s one mu of paddy field, though the harvest from the paddy is worth 1,500 yuan. If the elephants trample someone to death, the family will receive 200,000 yuan, according to Zhou. But the compensation scheme does nothing to prevent the animals from returning. “When elephants damage [the crops] for the first time, the people from the nature reserve will just take a look and leave — the elephants will come back soon afterward and eat [the crops] again,” says Zhou.

Children in the village are normally only allowed to play indoors.

Because of the dangers the elephants pose, villagers are reluctant to plant crops. “It’s dangerous to work in the fields up on the mountains,” says Zhou. “You’re scared of elephants coming out in the afternoon, so you can only work for half a day. We can only plant a few things in nearby fields. Some very good land has gone to waste.” What worries the villagers even more is the possibility of running into a wild elephant while taking their children to and from school.

“Life was good before the wild elephants started coming into the village [in 2014],” says Yang Guoping, who lives in Menghai County. “With the elephants here, we have to live in the shadows.”

Official records of the area’s elephant population only date back to 1991, though the animals have been there for decades. Some locals have encountered elephants while working in the mountains. “If you run downhill, an elephant won’t dare pursue you because it’s too heavy,” says Li Jianhua, a resident of Menghai who has been chased up the mountain by one. “It would end up falling head over heels.”

Because of the elephants’ status as a protected species, anyone who injures a wild elephant — even in self-defense — may face arrest and possible jail time of more than 10 years. In July 2015, the seven elephants that entered Wang Chaogui’s home later tried to wreck the outhouse at fellow villager Wang Pingkang’s home. Using a homemade nail gun, Wang Pingkang fired at the head of a female elephant, which then died next to a pond on his property. An autopsy discovered that the elephant was pregnant. When Wang Pingkang turned himself in to the authorities, he was detained on the spot and later sentenced to one year in prison and a year of probation for the possession of a nail gun, which is illegal in China. Because he gave himself up, the court pardoned him for the killing.

Anti-elephant barriers are installed around the houses of Wang Pingkang and four other families in Guanping Village, Yunnan province, Jan. 11, 2018. Wang Wanchun for Sixth Tone

Anti-elephant barriers are installed around the houses of Wang Pingkang and four other families in Guanping Village, Yunnan province, Jan. 11, 2018. Wang Wanchun for Sixth Tone

The elephants’ frequent troublemaking has created many challenges for the management and protection bureau, local forest police, and forestry department. Flaws in the monetary compensation system — including insufficient amounts and payment delays — have contributed to chipping away at the reverence and protectiveness locals traditionally held toward the elephants. Some residents have even put up banners: “Get rid of the elephants; give back our homeland.”

Villagers in Mengwang Township tell Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, that the disturbances in the area around their home are caused by individual elephants traveling alone. The elephants tend to leave their habitat in the afternoon and enter the village in the evening. “Lone elephants — especially males during mating season — are often the most dangerous and aggressive,” says Wang Qiaoyan. On top of that, food scarcity in the winter, when there are no crops in the field, can force elephants into a village in search of something to eat.

The fence has prevented elephants from entering the village on around 12 occasions.

As a result, some villages have relocated their entire population. But it’s impossible to completely escape the elephants. According to Feng Guanglin, a village official in Guanping, there used to be on average 35 to 40 cases of disturbances caused by wild elephants each year. For the past few years, that made it nearly impossible to plant rice or maize. After the village was relocated in May 2015, there were two instances where the elephants damaged houses. “Children in the village are normally only allowed to play indoors,” says Feng.

The Xishuangbanna reserve has put in place several measures to protect the villagers from elephants, but most have had little effect. In 2015, researchers from the reserve installed 15 surveillance cameras and an advance warning system in a village of several hundred people. But the system could only warn villagers about elephants entering their residential area, not prevent them from doing so. Some villages dug trenches; others put up electric fences. But neither protection measure lasted long: The trenches were damaged by heavy rain, and the elephants got used to the electric shocks.

To avert further clashes between elephants and humans, the nature reserve’s management and protection bureau launched an elephant-proof fence project last July — the first of its kind in China. Guanping was chosen to host a trial. “Since it was installed in October 2017, the fence has prevented elephants from entering the village on around 12 occasions,” says Feng.

The nature reserve invested 1.72 million yuan into building 1,350 meters of fencing encircling the villagers’ houses, which were situated close to elephant habitats. Standing at 2.2 meters tall and made of metal pipes and wires, the fence is like the barriers built for elephant enclosures in zoos — the animals can neither shake it down nor step over it.

But due to the high construction costs, the fencing could not be extended to other villages. According to the nature reserve, the fence cost the equivalent of 130,000 yuan per household — more than the total value of a local family’s property and possessions, if villagers were to pay for it. With limited funding for the fence from the management and protection bureau, expanding the project would be extremely difficult.

A surveyor inspects the feces left by a group of wild elephants on the trampled corn field in Jiangcheng County, Yunnan province, June 24, 2014. VCG

A surveyor inspects the feces left by a group of wild elephants on the trampled corn field in Jiangcheng County, Yunnan province, June 24, 2014. VCG

Aside from addressing the clashes between elephants and their human neighbors, researchers at the nature reserve are working to bolster the population of this endangered species.

Figures from the forest police in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture show that guns used by poachers in the ivory trade are major threats to the survival of the Asian elephant. Since 2010, a total of 42.62 kilograms of ivory were seized from smugglers. Between 2010 and 2015, authorities confiscated 3,525 guns and destroyed 10 gun-making dens.

China’s national ban on ivory sales came into effect this year. In December 2016, the State Council — China’s cabinet — issued a document stipulating that from New Year’s Day, 2018, the purchasing of ivory and derivative products at street markets or through other commercial channels like the internet would constitute illegal behavior.

Today, China’s Asian elephant population numbers over 300 — up from 170 in the 1980s. Having followed the elephants for almost 20 years, Wang Qiaoyan knows their habits like the back of her hand. “In many ways, elephants are just like humans,” she says. “Elephants won’t proactively attack a person. If you encounter one, take cover as best and fast as you can. Don’t drive them away — agitating an elephant will only lead to greater danger.”

A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

Contributions: Zhang Ruixue and Zheng Qiangwei; translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Doris Wang and Wang Yiwei.

(Header image: An elephant interacts with its keeper after rescued by local police in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan province, Oct. 14, 2007. VCG)