China: a long walk for elephants in survival mode

Wild elephants whose team keeps China in suspense highlight the difficulty of adapting protected species in a country where natural spaces are depleted.

Travel longer than 500 km

In China, wild elephants are protected and live exclusively in the tourist and tropical region of Xishuangbanna, on the border with Laos and Burma. In 2020, 15 pahiderms, including three elephants, left the reserve, heading north. If elephant migrations are not uncommon, the duration and distance traveled this time surprised experts: the herd is about 500 km from the starting point. Elephants have “felt that their traditional environment was no longer appropriate“and that’s why they are”left to find another placeZoologist Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden told AFP. The animals ventured into the city, crossing highways and touring stables and houses in search of food. They seem to be in good health. In the places crossed, the material damage is numerous and already amounts to almost one million euros.


Their march is constantly monitored by drones, and hundreds of officials are mobilized to evacuate the population. Authorities fear the mammals will be released in the event of stress. “Although they roam unknown and densely populated areas […] elephants look happy“Says Mr. Campos-Arceiz. The story is fascinating in China, where public television CCTV broadcasts live and continuously on the Internet the decay of elephants. The pictures showed a herd in full sleep lying in a forest on the river. Kunming, a large metropolis in southwest China. In early June , one of the pachyderms, a male, separated from the rest of the group with whom he nevertheless remains in contact.

To communicate despite the ten miles that separate them, elephants produce infrasound, which humans cannot hear. However, in urban areas, these vibrations can easily be disturbed by vehicle noise. China is one of the few places in the world where the endangered population of Asian elephants is increasing, thanks to strict anti-poaching laws and conservation efforts. In three decades, their number has doubled and now stands at more than 300 head. But at the same time, their living space has been reduced by almost two-thirds because of people, notes Zhang Li, a professor of ecology at Peking University. In southwest China, where elephants come from, their forests have given way to tea and rubber plantations that have actually devoured the places where pachyderms live.

“Their perregrination highlights threats to Asian elephants”

The construction of hydroelectric power plants and highways has also blocked migration routes, making it difficult for elephants to find partners and socialize. Scientists, however, are not sure that the change in the environment is causing herd migration. And the biggest difficulty today is knowing how to get them back.

Aerial view taken on June 7, 2021 by authorities in Yunnan Province a herd of elephants walking near the city of Kunming in southwest China. Merit: Yunnan Province Command for Asian Elephant Security Precautions / AFP / Archive – Handbook.

What about food baits? A solution to be avoided that would risk the irreversible domestication of the herd, warns researcher Wang Hongxin of Peking University. “It’s like a child getting used to eating sugar“Wang said, fearing changes in the group’s diet that would ultimately make them more susceptible to disease.”Their perregrination sheds light on threats to Asian elephants“and the risks of incidents with humans as pahiderma habitat is shrinking,” Wang said. According to the Yunnan Wildlife Office, the province that is home to the vast majority of pahiderma, elephants fatally injured elephants in the wild between 2013 and 2019. “People have to retreat (where the elephants live from) and let their lands return to the wild“, suggests Wang Hongxin.

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