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Sunday, May 28, 2023

China’s wandering elephants

by – Bikash Kali Das

China’s wandering elephants captivated the world’s attention in 2020 when a herd of around 14 Asian elephants began a journey towards the north, causing mayhem along the way. Initially, officials were unaware of the herd’s unusual migration, but as reports began to emerge of the elephants damaging houses and crops and drinking water from reservoirs, it became clear that something was amiss. The elephants, which are only found in a small area of southern China, became a household name as their adventures became national news, and villagers lined their route hoping for a glimpse.

By early June 2020, the herd had reached Kunming, the provincial capital, over 500 kilometres from their home in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve. This was the furthest any wild elephant from Yunnan had ever gone. However, after more than a year of wandering, the elephants eventually turned around and returned to their native habitat on December 9, 2021, with the help of Chinese authorities, who spent millions of yuan on guiding the elephants home.

The elephant’s journey highlights the ongoing struggle between conservation and development in China, where human-elephant conflict is a significant issue. The Asian elephant is one of China’s Class 1 protected animals, listed as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. According to official news agency Xinhua, thanks to conservation efforts by the Chinese authorities, the number of wild elephants in China has almost doubled from 180 in the 1980s to 300 in 2021 as a result of protective regulations.

In Xishuangbanna, where the majority of China’s wild elephants live, human-elephant conflict is the most prominent form of wildlife damage. The elephants are only found in a relatively tiny area of southern China, and there are fewer than 200 of them in total. They can be found in bamboo-broadleaf mixed forests near gullies and rivers, primarily in the southwest Yunnan province of China, including Pu’er city, Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, and Nangunhe National Nature Reserve.

To mitigate the conflict between humans and elephants, Chinese authorities have established a food-source base in Xishuangbanna Natural Reserve, which aims to reduce the amount of damage caused by elephants feeding on crops during the harvest season. However, the trial showed that the food-source base may have increased the elephants’ dependence on crops, exacerbating the issue. Instead, authorities may need to consider planting more forest plants in the food-source area.

Another important land use policy is “the temporal burning of forest in the protective areas,” which aims to promote the regeneration of wild plants to increase the natural food of elephants in their distribution areas, thus reducing the conflict between humans and elephants.

Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture is in eastern Eurasia and southern Yunnan Province in southwest China. With 39 towns overseeing 256 administrative villages, it has a total area of 19,100 km2, one city, and two counties (Jinghong City, Menghai County, and Mengla County). (total number of settlements: 2550). The only and biggest tropical rainforest in China is found in Xishuangbanna. It is also the biologically diversified region in all of China.About 14.4% of China’s total protected plant species are among the 56 types of national rare and endangered plants. Additionally, Xishuangbanna has abundant animal resources. There are 627 different species of terrestrial vertebrates, including 102 different types of mammals, 427 different bird species, 38 different amphibian species, and 60 different kinds of reptiles. As a result, Xishuangbanna is renowned as China’s valuable species gene pool, as well as the animal kingdom and forest ecological museum. The prefecture has the most prominent national natural reserve, divided into five protected sub-regions. (Mengla, Shangyong, Menglun, Mengyang, and Mangao).

In conclusion, the wandering elephants of China have highlighted the importance of conservation and habitat protection for endangered species such as the Asian elephant. While the Chinese authorities have made significant efforts to protect the elephant’s natural habitat, the challenge of mitigating human-elephant conflict remains. The establishment of a unified protection management system, stepping up habitat protection and restoration, and creating a national park for Asian elephants may go a long way in securing the future of this magnificent animal in China.


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