Both concerned and fascinated, millions of Chinese follow the fortunes of a herd of fifteen elephants, including two cubs, that have been roaming southwestern China for over a year. This week the herd reached the suburbs of the megacity of Kunming. By blocking the road with tractors and provoking them in a different direction with food, the authorities managed to keep the animals out of the city for the time being.
Fifteen months ago, the elephants broke out of the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve in Yunan Province where they resided and embarked on an epic journey that has now taken them 500 kilometers from ‘home’. In November, according to Xinhua news agency, they stopped in one place for quite some time because one of the boys was born. They did not move on until mid-April.
Along the way, the elephants visited numerous farms, where they feasted undisturbed on corn, tropical fruits and other products grown in this part of China. They also visited a car shop, where they drank water, and a retirement home. Some elephants curiously stuck their trunks inside some of the rooms. “I couldn’t escape through the window, so I hid under the bed,” said an old man.
More patience with elephants
The Chinese authorities are showing considerably more patience with the elephants than with opposition activists or the Uyghur minority. A team of eight keepers follows the herd day and night and they have deployed drones to monitor the movements of the herd. On Monday, more than 400 people, mainly police officers, were in line to keep the herd in line. The damage to harvests alone now amounts to more than a million euros. There have been no injuries yet.
Attempts to capture or forcibly return the animals have not yet been made by the Chinese. Instead, the authorities are limiting themselves to warnings to stay indoors and above all not to set off fireworks to scare the animals away. Video footage shows the animals trudging through empty city streets at night. It was also possible to follow via drone images how the herd was taking a nap in a forest, carefully draped around the little ones, rubbing their bums comfortably together.
Elephants are a protected species in China and only 300 remain in the wild, although their numbers are increasing slightly due to conservation measures. However, their remaining territory of natural habitat has diminished over the years.
Experts are still puzzled as to why the elephants didn’t quickly return to their sanctuary. One theory is that their leader is too inexperienced and has lost his way. Others do not rule out the possibility of looking for a new habitat.
Meanwhile, millions of Chinese follow the vicissitudes of the herd with fascination via social media. On Weibo, someone joked that the elephants apparently want to attend a diversity conference to be held in Kunming in October.
Also read: In China, animals are there for human use