China’s stray elephant herd highlights habitat loss and conservation failures

China’s strict anti-poaching laws and conservation efforts have led to an increase in the endangered Asian elephant population.

The elephant herd rests near the town of Xinyang in the Jinning district of Kunming city, southwest China’s Yunnan province. Image via The Associated Press / Yunnan Forest Fire Brigade

A mammoth trek through southern China by a herd of elephants that captivated the world with their playful antics highlighted their habitat loss and conservation challenges.

Forest mammals traveled about 500 kilometers (310 miles) from their home in one of the longest such animal migrations recorded in China.

Scientists are still bewildered by what prompted the elephants to leave their homes in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, on the border with Laos.

Since leaving in the spring of last year, they have looted shops and trampled crops worth more than a million dollars, and thousands of residents have been evacuated from their path.

“For some reason, these elephants felt that their traditional home range was no longer suitable (…) and they then went to look elsewhere,” Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, a specialist in elephants in the garden, told AFP. tropical botany of Xishuangbanna.

“But they didn’t have a destination in mind. They’re just moving around trying to find a place that will work for them.”

Officials followed the wandering herd with drones around the clock, fearing they would go wild if stressed.

Elephants rely on infrasonic sound – the vibration of their feet – to communicate, but in cities they can be easily confused due to the sounds of vehicles.

“What surprised me the most is that these elephants are very healthy and look very happy despite roaming densely populated and unfamiliar areas,” Campos-Arceiz said.

“These elephants are very playful which tells me they are doing well,” he added.

Forest destruction

The forests in the far southwest of Yunnan province, where the elephants originated, quickly gave way to rubber and tea plantations, and herds found themselves stranded in isolated reserves.

China is one of the few places in the world where the endangered Asian elephant population is increasing, due to strict anti-poaching laws and conservation efforts.

The number of wild elephants in the country has doubled to more than 300 animals in the past three decades.

But their habitats have shrunk by nearly two-thirds over the same period, said Zhang Li, professor of ecology at Peking Normal University.

Fragmentation of habitat – with hydroelectric power stations and highways blocking old migration routes – makes it difficult to find mates and socialize.

Electric fences built to protect villagers are also likely to injure stray animals.

The destruction of forests has led to an upsurge in conflict between elephants and villagers in the region in recent years.

From 2013 to 2019, more than 70 people were trampled to death and dozens injured by marauding elephants in Yunnan, according to data from the local wildlife bureau.

Mammoth task

Scientists are uncertain whether a changing landscape was the cause of the herd’s migration, which made it famous online and attracted international media to follow the march.

Fans cooed over videos showing a matriarch rescuing a calf from a gutter and another where elephants line up in a yard to drink water, one of whom managed to turn on a faucet with his trunk.

State TV launched a 24/7 live video feed of the elephants to track the movements of the 15 animals, including two calves born on the road.

But with the elephants showing no signs of returning home or settling in a new location, attempts by wildlife officials to lead them could be risky, experts warn.

Using trucks full of pineapples and sugar cane to bait them could irreversibly domesticate the herd.

“It’s like getting a child used to eating sugar,” said Wang Hongxin of Peking Normal University.

During his surveys of elephant habitats in Yunnan, Wang saw how “elephant canteens” planted with corn, bamboo and wild bananas to deter beasts from plundering the fields altered their diet, making them more prone to disease.

“The current march highlights the threats facing Asian elephants,” he added, warning that conflicts would increase if habitat size was further reduced. “Humans must retreat and let the earth return to the wild.”

Also Read: China’s Stray Elephant Herd Gets International Attention After 500Km Hike

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