September 19, 2021

The big mop of an elephant herd across China

“One, two, one, two, one, twoThe elephant patrol moves forward heavily, its trunk forward, ears blowing in the wind… ” We don’t really know if they move forward by following this chorus taken from the Jungle Book Disney studios or even if they have a claim, but since Wednesday, June 2, a herd of 15 Asian elephants (The largest elephant not to be confused with Loxodonta africana, the savannah elephant and Loxodonta cyclotis, the African Forest Elephant) roams the outskirts of Kunming, a city of nearly 8 million people and the capital of Yunnan province in southern China. They are some 500 kilometers from their last known home, Mengyangzi Nature Reserve, in Xishuangbanna Autonomous Prefecture, deep in Yunnan Province.

The herd hasn’t hurt anyone yet, but Chinese authorities have taken the lead. In Kunming and in the neighboring city of Yuxi, 675 police officers were deployed, accompanied by about sixty emergency vehicles, supported by a dozen surveillance drones, reported the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on June 2. They also asked the people of Kunming to avoid leaving food lying around in their garden.

Journey started in 2020

Because these pachyderms should not be taken lightly. According to the New China News Agency, between 2011 and 2019 more than 4,600 accidents involving Asian elephants took place in Xishuangbanna: more than 8,000 hectares of crops were destroyed, and they are believed to have committed more than 100 million yuan in damage (about 12 million euros) and, above all, killed about fifty people. And, for the last forty days, the small troop which has made the beauty of the reserve of Mengyangzi is accused of having “Destroyed 55.7 hectares of crops, causing losses estimated at 6.8 million yuan”, say the Yunnan authorities, quoted by the SCMP.

The herd of Asian elephants pictured on a street in Eshan, Yunnan province, China on May 27, 2021.

Becky Shu Chen, a Zoological Society of London consultant who has studied elephant-human interaction and works with Xishuangbanna Reserve elephant specialist Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, talks about their amazing journey. “They started to leave the nature reserve and head north in March 2020 and arrived in Mojiang County.. This is where a baby elephant was born, in December. They stayed there for four months. Then the herd resumed its journey north in April ”, she explains to World. It should be noted that the elephants left at 17, but two of them turned back.

In recent weeks, their epic has ignited Chinese social networks, where humorous comments abound, notes the South China Morning Post : “They probably want to attend the meeting of the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity in Kunming”, wrote a commentator on the social network Weibo. Becky Shu Chen adds that the population has given this troop a nickname. “They call it ‘little broken nose’ [小断鼻, en chinois, mot-clé repris sur Weibo pour les désigner], because one of the baby elephants lost part of its trunk. “

Humans encroach on the elephant domain …

There is currently no solid scientific explanation to explain this displacement over several hundred kilometers. “It is not uncommon for elephants to wander outside their reserves and slowly occupy new areas, but this particular herd is surprising,” continues Becky Shu Chen. Thus, in January 2018, an isolated elephant left on a mop, crossing a border post to go to Luang Namtha, in Laos, before returning to China, confirms the SCMP.

Preparing a drone to perform elephant herd surveillance, Eshan County, May 29, 2021.
The herd of Asian elephants pictured in Eshan County, China on May 28, 2021.

The researcher nevertheless makes a few hypotheses: Asian elephants are a species that mainly inhabits South and Southeast Asia and are considered endangered. As such, they have been on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature since 1986.

In China where they are strictly protected, there are around 300, mainly in southern Yunnan. They live in huge reserves in which they move at will in search of food and according to the seasons. “But the increase in deforestation since the 1980s, to make way for agricultural land and mainly rubber plantations, has resulted in a reduction and fragmentation of their domain. Now they move through populated agricultural areas ”, adds the researcher.

… who pay them back

According to her, Asian elephants have adapted to this change in their environment. As their population grows and food requirements increase, they expand their range: “The expansion of agricultural land and plantations on their territory is equivalent, for them, to the discovery of a huge confectionery in which they know they will find enormous quantities of easily accessible food. “

Becky Shu Chen nevertheless recalls some obvious facts: “We advise people who do not know them to leave them space and not to approach them: they are wild animals and they can be dangerous, especially when accompanied by young people. We also advise the authorities to allocate more resources and attention to the communities who live next to them, so that they can safely coexist. ” But, for her, the journey of “little broken noses” “Will require further investigation”.