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China’s wandering elephants have an important message for us6 min read

July 2, 2021 5 min read

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China’s wandering elephants have an important message for us6 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

You might have seen images of a herd of fifteen elephants wandering around China. While it posits an adorable site that has warranted much love on the internet, it also poses some deep seated questions about where our world is going.

Who are these elephants?

On March 15 2020, 16 elephants from China’s Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, left their forest home and started moving northwards in December. According to an official report, sixteen animals were originally in the group, but two returned home and a baby was born during this journey.

The herd now has six females and three male adults, three juveniles and three calves. This journey is the longest documented trail of wild animals in China covering over 500 kilometres. No wonder it has been given all this attention.

Where all have they been?

This map tracks down the path the elephants have been on:

As is evident from the map, the elephants have been moving northwards away from their home. But newest information on the elephants shows that the herd has taken a U-Turn. The herd left Yimen county and entered Eshan county. From here they moved 3.9 kilometres towards the southwest. Since then, they have continued to move in that direction. What makes this move special is that this is the direction of their original home— Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve!

But it is difficult to define the destination of their long journey.

Elephant’s Day Out!


Do you remember the story of Kaavan? Click on the picture to head to Owliver’s archives.

All along the way, the elephants from the herd have become internet celebrities with drones, and security cameras offering reliable footage of their tryst with the urban city! They have entered farms for food and water. They even visited a car dealership. What’s more is that they even marked their presence at a retirement home where they poked their inquisitive trunks into some of the rooms, making one elderly boarder hide under his bed!

No people or animals have been hurt in this strange occurrence but economic damages to the tunes of one million USD have been incurred.

For now, all efforts are being made to avoid any human-animal clashes by keeping the elephants out of urban areas. Authorities are using construction equipment and parking trucks to steer the way the elephants are taking!

Why are they moving?

Well, elephants tend to move a lot. It is part of their nature. In fact if these huge friends from the wild did not move ever so often, it would cause extreme strain on forest resources.

Did you know that there was a time when wild elephants were found in big numbers all over China? The Chinese naturalist and geographer, Wen Huanran, had documented the existence of wild elephants in China over 7000 years!

But there could be more to this than what nature mandated.

Forests are often cleared for construction of bridges, roads etc. Although conservation areas are created, these are not understood by animals. The elephant habitat is extremely fragmented. So, it could be that the herd has moved away from their earlier home in search for a more sustainable one. Elephants are believed to be loyal to their homes but this move could prove that their home in itself is not looking conducive anymore.

The herd appears to be attracted to corn, tropical fruits and other crops that are available in galore in the area that the elephants belong to. So some people are also speculating that their leader could just be lost! But then why have they taken a full reverse turn? For now, all we have is speculation!

According to some experts, the elephants will not be able to return to their original homes as they have wandered too far from it. Crossing the river this time of the year will prove to be another hindrance.

The strongest contender remains habitat loss as agriculture has led to clearing of forests in that area over the last few decades. Even as a speculation, it serves as a (not-so) timely warning to conservationists and Government authorities.

What are the authorities doing right now?

Well, they are doing a lot! After all, it is not everyday that you see elephants entering retirement homes.

The elephants at Kunming. Image: The Hindu

Take for instance when the elephants were found resting on the outskirts of Kunming. The group appeared to be resting with the exception of one male elephant who had moved away on his own (he is still on his own somewhere to the northeast of the herd). More than 410 emergency response personnel and police personnel were made available in the area. Many vehicles and 14 drones were used to monitor them. Residents of the area were evacuated and temporary traffic measures were implemented. Also, 2 tons of elephant food was kept ready! The authorities also ensured an environment of silence to urge the elephants to move towards the west or south.

For now, Yunnan Provincial Forestry and Grassland Bureau has established a duty system to ensure herd safety precautions. More personnel and seventeen drones are going to monitor and guide the herd towards the southwest.

Elephants are given top-level protection in China but their numbers seem to be dwindling all over the world. There are now only 5,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. Let’s see what this journey reveals about the longer journey of the species on our planet.

In the early 2000s, a herd of 150 elephants (now 70-80) were marooned on the river islands of the Brahmaputra between Majuli (Jorhat) and Dehingmukh (Dibrugarh) in India. This was because of massive deforestation in the area that cut off the access the herd had to the their habitat in the lowlands. This has led to more human-animal conflict. Find out more and share with Owliver in the comments below.

With excerpts from The Hindu, Outlook, and Global Times

Illustration: Rehna Kareem. Rehna is a freelance illustrator and an integral part of Team Owliver, who doodles at Paper Planes Doodles

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