No one knows exactly what startled the elephant herd so much that it left the Mengyang Nature Reserve in Southern China six months ago. Since then, the 15 Asian elephants have walked more than 500 kilometers, ravaging fields and throwing villages into turmoil along the way, until they finally reached the outskirts of Kunming, the provincial capital, in early June.
"I don't know of any other example where these animals have run this far," says behavioral scientist Dingzhen Liu of Beijing Normal University. Even he can only speculate about the reasons. Presumably, the growing population and their shrinking habitat have led them to look for new food sources, Liu tells the F.A.Z. The number of wild Asian elephants in China grew from 170 to nearly 300 between 2006 and 2018 due to effective action against poachers. At the same time, their habitat has shrunk by about 40 percent. However, the Mengyang Nature Reserve, from which they set out, is actually sufficient in terms of area, he said.
Meanwhile, the behavior of the still-roaming animals is likely influenced by an entirely different factor: stress. "I'm really concerned about that," says behaviorist Liu. The herd has become a media spectacle in China. Their every move is broadcast around the clock on the state television website. Camera drones buzz above their heads. Crowds gather along their route. Add to that the efforts of police and local authorities to keep the elephants away from populated areas. Dozens of garbage trucks and trucks and tons of food are being used to try to get them to turn back. Hundreds of police officers are involved in the operation. In the meantime, however, Liu believes the authorities have learned and understood how to calm the animals. As proof of this, he sees a scene that also attracted international attention last week: the elephants lay down flat on the ground to sleep in a forest outside the megacity of Kunming.
These days, a working group of scientists and representatives of the authorities has formed in Kunming to discuss ways to maneuver the elephants into a suitable habitat. A meanwhile considered stunning of the animals for transport was apparently discarded again. Liu believes a voluntary return to the Mengyang Nature Reserve is relatively unlikely, not only because of the great distance involved, but also because of the animals' memory, which apparently had an "unfortunate experience" there. But as a herd isolated from a larger population, the animals would have a hard time, the researcher suspects. One problem could be that the elephants have since changed their feeding behavior. They have become accustomed to feeding on corn and sugar cane.
Already, they have caused damage of more than a million dollars during their migration, according to official estimates. Conflicts between elephants and farmers have increased in China. In the meantime, there is even an insurance policy that covers such damage - although hardly any of the injured parties have taken out such a policy.
The drama surrounding the elephants' migration has sparked a debate in China about better species protection, just in time for the UN Biodiversity Conference. The conference is to be held in October in Kunming, of all places (though largely virtually), prompting jokes that the elephants have walked to the provincial capital to petition on their own behalf. There are calls to establish a first national park specifically for elephants.
Since 2015, ten national parks have been designated in China in a pilot project that has opened in recent months. The ban on ivory trade is considered a success story for species conservation in China. However, agriculture is eating deeper and deeper into southern China's virgin forests. Rubber and tea plantations as well as medicinal herbs are taking up ever larger areas in the Mengyang Nature Reserve and changing the ecosystem there. Roads, railways, dams and other infrastructure projects are cutting the forest areas into smaller and smaller patches. In May, it was reported that another herd of elephants had left the reserve. They are currently making a beeline for the Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Science.
Image by Barbara Fraatz