A herd of elephants wandering through southwest China has captured millions of fantasies.
Surveillance by hundreds of drone-assisted police officers, the massive animals reached Kunming in southern Yunnan province earlier this week after traveling about 300 miles from their original nature reserve, state-owned media reported.
Adam Chang was hired to supply corn and pineapple to the elephants, which average 11 meters tall and weigh 11,000 kg.
He said what he saw was amazing.
“I saw them pick the corn apart with their suitcases,” he told NBC News via the messaging and social media app WeChat.
“They are just so much more lively than the ones I saw at the zoo. It almost felt like they had a sacred aura around them, ”he said.
While the news of their migration has spread across China and gone viral online, with many expressing wonder and fascination, experts warned that this rare journey could indicate the inevitable and damaging consequences of human intervention in the elephants’ natural habitat.
The crew reached Kunming on June 2 despite police efforts to lure them home. The animals took the time to cross what would have been a busy road, eating and stumbling into irrigation ditches before sleeping in nearby woods.
Following the trend on social media in late May, many netizens were amazed while some complained about the devastation left in their wake.
Jason Cao, owner of a Yunnan mining company that has contracted with the government to supply their feed, said he did not believe the damage they caused was serious.
“Elephants are sacred animals that can bring wealth and peace to Chinese culture, so we are very happy that the elephants came,” he said.
Both Chang and Cao refused to offer their first names because they had not been allowed to speak to the media by local officials and feared retaliation. Instead, they asked to be identified by their “American” names.
The crew first became aware of outsiders in March 2020 when they left their homes in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in southwestern Yunnan on the border with Myanmar and Laos. One calf was born in November, and two elephants split from the rest in April 2021, according to the Xinhua State News Agency.
Officials and experts say they do not know why the crew is migrating.
According to Tammie Matson, a zoologist and fellow at the University of Rwanda and director of Matson and Ridley Safaris, elephants can travel long distances if there is not enough habitat to meet their needs.
“Some may be driven to move away to access these resources to avoid competition,” she said.
Xinhua has reported that the Asian elephant population in Yunnan has ballooned from 180 in the 1980s to 300 in 2021. So it is possible that as the number grew, a subgroup began searching for new habitats, got lost and just kept traveling, according to Nilanga Jayasinghe, leader of the Wildlife Conservation Team at WWF, an international non-governmental organization specializing in wildlife conservation.
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Network users have plenty of theories as to why elephants migrate and blame global warming and deforestation.
Asian elephants inhabit forests and grasslands, so the deforestation rate in Xishuangbanna, which reached an annual average of 4.1 square kilometers in 2010, may have contributed to the migration of the herd.
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 occurring in India and Sri Lanka.
These trips could have a negative impact on the health of a crew, he warned.
“I would expect the stress levels in the elephants to start rising because the elephants are in a completely different terrain,” he said. “It’s very densely populated … It’s not that easy for them to navigate through a city.”
For Hannah Mumby, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences, it’s important to address the root cause of their departure, otherwise this behavior could be repeated.
China Central Television News Agency has captured signs of another herd of elephants trying to migrate across a river in Xishuangbanna.
Meanwhile, those who have seen the elephants say the experience is more than memorable.
“Before this meeting, I just felt curious about animals, now I think I would volunteer for animal rights groups to preserve these giant creatures,” Chang said.