Wild elephants’ long march captivates an entire nation


In this photo taken June 4, 2021, a migrating herd of elephants graze near Shuanghe township, Jinning district of Kunming city in southwestern China's Yunnan Province. Photo: Yunnan Forest Fire Brigade via AP

Chinese social media has been dominated by a group of animals for weeks. But instead of your usual puppies and kittens, this time it’s all about a herd of wild elephants from Yunnan province that has been roaming the country for months.

Nobody knows what prompted the animals to leave their natural habitat in the subtropical forests of their nature reserve in Xishuangbanna, close to the south-western border with Laos and Myanmar.

So far, they have covered a distance of over 500km already, destroying fields, plundering harvests and cutting through villages and cities on the way, causing more than a million dollars in damage.

Social media stars

At the same time, the “incredibly cute” and “sweet” elephants have become social media stars. Drones film the herd from the air as they lie cuddled together with their young calves, lined up between trees on the ground, sleeping peacefully.

Chinese media outlets keep the public informed of the herd’s whereabouts every day, even sending out alerts: “Wild elephant herd halts advance north as lone male lags behind” read a push notification from the renowned economic magazine Caixin.

Asian elephants, a protected species, are sociable beings.

The herd has been on the road for over a year. Most recently, they caused a commotion as they reached the outskirts of the southern city of Kunming, a metropolis of 7 million. Had they arrived a few months later, they would have just been in time for the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference (Cop15) scheduled to be held in Kunming in October 2021.

Some also joke that the roaming elephants might have set off on a “long march” similar to Communist revolutionaries of the 1930s.

Either way, their trajectory is unusual, as China’s north is densely populated.

Xie Can, an expert in the field of geomagnetism at the Chinese Academy of Sciences believes that “this is an awakening of the inherent migratory instinct of wild elephants in Yunnan”.

“It may be that a magnetic storm caused by an abnormal solar activity activated this instinct, ” he theorises.

However, as in many cases, the blame might more likely lie with humans. According to Zhang Li, professor for Ecology at Beijing Normal University, the nature reserve in Xishuangbanna has dwindled by 40% as agriculture and settlements push back the forest.

Meanwhile, the number of elephants has increased from 180 in the 1980s to 300 today, due to better protection, including from poachers.

“On the one hand we have an increasing elephant population, but on the other hand the suitable habitat declined in the past years, ” Li says on national TV. “This is a classic conflict between wildlife conservation and the rural economic development. This is the key factor for these elephants migrating out of their original homeland.”

The large animals, which can become aggressive when feeling threatened, are generally considered to be stressed, not least because of all the attention they are getting.

Hundreds of bystanders gather to witness their arrival, while drones circle above their heads.

A task force of 300 helpers has been monitoring their every step for weeks, and village councils receive information on the herd’s exact location in real time. Authorities then often use lorries or garbage trucks to keep them from entering settlements. The clever elephants have long since learned that it’s easier to find nutritious fodder on China’s fields than in the forests of their reserve, where they usually only eat smaller plants, according to experts.

Villagers have been using tonnes of sugar cane, bananas, corn and other grains to lure the elephants away from their fields and homes.

It’s enough to provide the animals – who can devour between 200 and 300kg per day – with the food they need on their ongoing trek, leading them further away from their natural way of life. – dpa/Andreas Landwehr

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