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2021-05-31 10:34:56

With government task forces, drones, and media livestreams, China has been closely following the journey of 15 endangered Asian elephants as they’ve left a forest reserve close to the country’s borders with Laos and Myanmar and trekked 400 kilometers and counting through populated areas, triggering a massive response to protect people and property.

On Thursday, the herd caused a scare in the county seat of Eshan Yi Autonomous County, in the southwestern Yunnan province, where people were evacuated but no one was ultimately hurt as the animals resumed their travels.

The elephants left the forest reserve in March of 2020, settled in an area to its north, and then moved northward again this April. Since then, they have damaged about 56 hectares of farmland and caused economic losses worth 6.8 million yuan ($1 million), according to authorities.

The elephants’ long-distance “tour” has made national headlines, with many people wondering why the animals suddenly migrated out of their usual habitat. Considered the largest terrestrial vertebrate in Asia, Asian elephants were classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1986. After years of conservation, there are now around 300 Asian elephants in China, including 270 in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, the former home of the 15 travelers.

A GIF shows three of the 15 wild Asian elephants wandering at a village. From Weibo

A GIF shows three of the 15 wild Asian elephants wandering at a village. From Weibo

In recent years, Asian elephants have increasingly been spotted in areas of human activity, damaging property and even killing villagers. In 2019 alone, 14 people were killed by elephants in Yunnan, according to financial outlet Caixin.

Asian elephants mainly travel to seek suitable living areas, as their habitats have become increasingly fragmented due to human activity, Zhang Li, a professor of ecology at Beijing Normal University told Sixth Tone. “Appropriate elephant habitats have decreased by 40% in the past 20 years,” said Zhang. His research shows a major reason to be the development of cash crops such as rubber and tea.

Establishing an “ecological corridor” to link up elephants’ habitats may decrease confrontations between humans and elephants in Yunnan, Zhang said.

For now, the government hopes the animals will decide to return home. Yunnan’s Forestry and Grassland Department has set up work groups in response to the elephants’ migration, placing favorite foods such as sugar cane to lure them back south. Dump trucks and other vehicles have also been placed to try and alter their path.

The animals, however, have yet to turn around. Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper reported Monday that the herd is now only 50 kilometers away from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: An aerial image shows five of the 15 Asian elephants wandering in Eshan Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan province. Xinhua)