International 09/06/2021

The elephants that have been roaming around China for a year and no one knows where they are going

There are 15 of them and they have crossed forests, orchards, roads and even cities

Mar Bermúdez i Jiménez
3 min
Latest images showing elephants sleeping in the forest outside Kumming

BarcelonaThey are already more than 500 kilometers north of their natural habitat and have been travelling for a year. They are a herd of 15 Asian elephants that migrate through China without anyone knowing what their goal is. According to experts, it is the longest, and possibly strangest, migration ever seen. Perhaps they are looking for better food; perhaps they have lost their way; perhaps they are a fearless bunch, like the protagonists of so many fantastic films. Scientists from all over the world are fascinated by the case - migrations are common in the species, but it is surprising that they do not settle anywhere and simply choose to keep on walking - and Chinese authorities have deployed an operation of 400 workers who follow them to protect them but also the population they meet as they go along. The adventures of the elephants have generated so much expectation that they are already television stars: on the Chinese state channel, they broadcast their adventures live, 24 hours a day.

The population, captivated by this story, shares images on social networks to the point that the phenomenon is trending topic on Weibo, China's most popular social network. A team of drones constantly accompanies the herd to monitor its route and behavior. The latest images, from this Tuesday, show the elephants sleeping in a forest on the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.

The animals began the migration in March 2020, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. They left the Xishuangbanna National Reserve, on the southeastern tip of the China-Lao border. At first there were 16 of them, but a few turned back. Over the months, more have been born, and now there are 15. They are advancing through forests, grasslands, fields, villages and even towns. More than 1.1 million dollars worth of damage has been counted from passing through alleys, houses, orchards and barns where they find food. Videos of some of their antics - from smashing windows and doors to rampaging through a car dealership - are circulating on social media.

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have advised people to avoid leaving wheat or salt in backyards, as they attract the animals. Some villages have been evacuated to protect their residents and warnings are being issued that the animals are wild and dangerous and should not be approached. China is trying to keep the herd away from the most populated areas, such as the city of Kunming, home to some eight million people. However, so far, they have not had much success: they created some kind of roads covered with wheat to make a barrier and try to divert them, but the elephants tore them apart, ate the wheat and continued in the direction they wanted, until they ended up entering the city.

Refugees fleeing humans

Migration has become a media circus, and some critics believe that it should be read very differently. The Asian elephant is an endangered species and the Chinese government has long taken steps to protect. Currently, despite the increase, there are only about 300 of them, mainly in the Yunnan province. According to some scientists, there is now more population in the same space, limited by the action of humans, which makes habitability difficult. That is why they believe that the herd of 15 elephants is taking refuge from humans, who have destroyed their natural habitat, and they are trying to find a space where they can settle down to survive.

For now, there are no indications that the adventure is about to end. According to the experts, the well-known intelligence of the elephants has allowed them to learn lessons along the way, such as the fact that the cultivated fields provide them with better, easier to obtain and varied food than what they find in the forest they were used to. Thus, at least this group has been adapting to urbanisation and humans, making it even more difficult to predict where, when and how their journey will end, which, at least in the media, has crossed borders.

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