Roaming elephants head home

The 14 itinerant Asian elephants in southwest China’s Yunnan province are finally heading back toward their habitat, after a major campaign by the locals to lure them home, announced the Yunnan provincial government on Monday. 

The headline-grabbing elephants have been on the road for more than 110 days since March, when they set off from a natural reserve in the rainforests of Xishuangbanna for reasons still unclear. Their migration stirred up a national debate on conserving the endangered species (only about 300 now exist in the wild in China). At one point, the herd entered the outskirts of Kunming, the provincial capital, more than 500km to the north of their original habitat. 

The exodus posed a major challenge for local authorities which had to strike a fine balance between defending human properties and protecting the elephants which are symbols of Yunnan’s conservation efforts. In June, as the herd pressed on towards Kunming, the government settled on a strategy of guiding and luring, using roadblocks, food and other “softball measures” to change their route. The campaign finally paid off in early July, when the elephants’ movement began to show signs of a southward turn. On 8 August, the herd crossed the Yuanjiang River at a point 26km away from the inhabitable environment of Mojiang county, marking a decisive moment in their journey home. 

According to the provincial government, thousands of people, vehicles and drones have been deployed to monitor and guide the elephants. Along their route, 150,000 people were evacuated to avoid harm, and the government paid 5 million yuan (US$770,000) in property damages to residents. The case has become a major test of strategies to ensure co-existence of wild animals and human beings, local authorities told the press.

Read China Dialogue’s recent article on addressing the conflict between humans and bears on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau.