A herd of elephants roaming southwestern China has captured the imagination of millions.
Monitored by hundreds of police officers assisted by drones, the giant animals reached Kunming, southern Yunnan Province earlier this week, after traveling about 300 miles from their native wildlife sanctuary, state media reported.
Adam Chang was hired to deliver corn and pineapple to the elephants, who average 3.50 meters tall and weigh 11,000 pounds.
He said what he saw was amazing.
“I’ve seen them pick apart the corn with their logs,” he told NBC News of the WeChat messaging and social media app.
“They’re just a lot more alive than the ones I saw at the zoo. It almost felt like they had a sacred aura around them, ”he said.
As news of their migration spread across China and went viral online, with many of them expressing amazement and fascination, experts warned that this rare journey could point to the inevitable and harmful consequences of human intrusion into the elephants’ natural habitat.
The herd reached Kunming on June 2, despite police efforts to lure them home. The animals took their time driving the busy streets, feeding, and stumbling into irrigation ditches before going to sleep in the nearby woods.
Following the trend on social media in late May, many internet users were in awe while some complained about the destruction they left behind.
Jason Cao, owner of a Yunnan mining company hired by the government to deliver their fodder, said he didn’t think the damage they caused was serious.
“Elephants are sacred animals that can bring happiness and peace to Chinese culture, so we are very happy that the elephants have come,” he said.
Both Chang and Cao refused to give their first names because they had not received permission from the local authorities to speak to the media and feared that they would retaliate. Instead, they asked to be identified by their “American” names.
The herd first became aware of outsiders in March 2020 when they left their home in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in southwest Yunnan on the border with Myanmar and Laos. According to the state news agency Xinhua, a calf was born in November and two elephants split off from the rest in April 2021.
Officials and experts say they do not know why the herd is migrating.
According to Tammie Matson, zoologist and research fellow at the University of Rwanda and director of Matson and Ridley Safaris, elephants can travel long distances when there isn’t enough habitat to meet their needs.
“Some might be forced to move away to get access to these resources to avoid competition,” she said.
Xinhua has reported that the population of Asian elephants in Yunnan increased from 180 in the 1980s to 300 in 2021. So it is possible that a subgroup of increasing numbers was looking for new habitats, got lost and simply continued to travel, according to Nilanga Jayasinghe, head of the wildlife protection team at WWF, an international non-governmental organization that specializes in nature conservation.
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Internet users have many theories about why elephants migrate and blame global warming and deforestation.
Asian elephants inhabit forests and grasslands, so the deforestation rate in Xishuangbanna, which averaged 4.1 square miles annually in 2010, may have contributed to the herd migration.
Still, long-distance migrations are not unknown to the animals, according to Raman Sukumar, professor of ecology at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, India, with similar migrations in India and Sri Lanka.
These trips can be detrimental to a herd’s health, he warned.
“I would expect the stress on the elephants to increase because the elephants are in completely different terrain,” he said. “It’s very densely populated … It’s not that easy for them to move around a city.”
For Hannah Mumby, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences, it is important to address the cause of her departure, otherwise this behavior could repeat itself.
The China Central Television News Agency did captured Signs of a second herd of elephants attempting to cross a river in Xishuangbanna.
In the meantime, those who saw the elephants say the experience is more than unforgettable.
“Before this encounter, I was just curious about animals, now I think I would volunteer with animal rights groups to protect these huge creatures,” said Chang.