A herd of wild elephants marching through villages and towns in south-western China’s Yunnan province has generated a frenzy among admirers online and added urgency to the country’s efforts to protect the animals’ natural habitat.
Last spring, 16 Asian elephants began walking north from a nature reserve in Xishuangbanna, a tropical region that borders Myanmar and Laos in the south of the province.
By June, the group, now down to 15 and including a newborn calf, had travelled 500km, close to Yunnan’s sprawling capital, Kunming. In the process, they became a national obsession.
Chinese media has checked in on the herd daily, sharing the latest instalments of drone and security camera footage of the elephants sauntering through tea plantations and down high streets.
A fleet of vehicles and an army of officials have been mobilised to escort the elephants. On one day this month, authorities sent 360 emergency response and police personnel, 76 police cars and dump trucks, five excavators and nine drones and fed 16 tonnes of food to the elephants, according to state-owned news agency Xinhua.
Although some users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo microblog platform noted the damage elephants inflicted by smashing down doors in search of food, most focused on pictures of sleeping elephant calves huddled around their mother or noted the creatures’ intelligence.
In one widely shared video, an elephant walks up to the front gate of a village home and uses its trunk to turn on a tap so the herd can drink.
In another, an elephant calf appeared to become intoxicated from eating fermented grains, inspiring a local musician to write a song about Yunnan’s drunk elephants.
As the herd approached Kunming, Chinese experts urgently debated the precise causes of the migration and how to deal with elephants roaming the periphery of a city of 8m.
Zhao Huaidong, former director of the IFAW Asian Elephant Protection project in Xishuangbanna, which educates local villagers about how to safely handle elephants, called the herd’s northerly migration “very unusual” because it did not follow a fixed route.
“In the past 20 years, protection of Asian elephants means their numbers have increased but declining virgin forest outside protected areas has reduced their living space and caused the elephants to spread to areas where humans are active,” he said.
The renewed attention on elephants’ habitats comes as Kunming prepares to host the UN Biodiversity Conference in October. Environmentalists hope China will use the opportunity to strengthen commitments to protecting endangered wildlife and expand nature reserves.
Asian elephants receive China’s highest level of species protection. Hundreds of years ago, herds would roam far into what is now central China, but in recent decades the country’s population of about 300 elephants has been confined to Yunnan province.
Local authorities have launched a campaign to keep the animals away from Kunming. They have blocked roads and laid trails of pineapples, sweetcorn and other foods to lure the animals away from densely populated areas.
Zhou Jinfeng, director of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, warned that attempts to drive the elephants back would be the wrong approach, and could lead to a greater risk of clashes with humans.
“My proposal is that we shouldn’t totally halt their migration but rather establish migration corridors,” he said.
According to Zhou, villagers’ tolerance and lack of violence towards the elephants was a marked shift from the past and a positive sign of acceptance of the protected species. “That’s something that has made me especially relieved,” he said.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing