Roaming Elephants and a Conservation Wake-Up Call

by Becky Shu Chen

A HERD OF FIFTEEN wild Asian elephants in the south-west of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) made global headlines in 2021. They had left their nature reserve in Xishuangbanna, in Yunnan province, not far from the border with Myanmar and Laos, a year earlier. By early June, they had trekked more than 500 kilometres north to the outskirts of Yunnan’s capital city, Kunming, which is home to 8.4 million people. A team of trackers using everything from hi-tech drones to strategic drops of bananas then began helping guide them home, notifying villagers along the way of the herd’s imminent arrival and cutting power supplies where necessary to keep the elephants from being electrocuted or causing fires. Safeguarded by some 25,000 personnel and 150,000 temporary evacuations,1 these elephants had crossed the Yuan River 元江 safely by August and eventually returned to their historical natural range after an exceptional journey of 1,300 kilometres. It is a sign of the impact of human activity on ecosystems, characteristic of the period that scientists call the Anthropocene.

‘Cute’ 可爱, ‘gentle’ 温顺, ‘intelligent’ 聪慧, and ‘human-like’ 像人一样2 were popular perceptions of a public hooked on daily reports and even livestreams of the herd’s progress. This is even though these elephants — which can grow to four metres tall, weigh five tonnes, and run at twenty-five kilometres per hour — raided crops (approximately US$1 million worth), broke into shops, and destroyed property and infrastructure. Their journey was a troubling sign of the poor health of the natural world. An unprecedented drought had hit South Yunnan in 2020 — the most severe climate-related disaster of the past five decades. The drastic shortage of natural food in the forests likely prompted their march to regions that they had not occupied in modern times.

Public knowledge in China about wild elephants calls to mind, in an uncommonly literal way, an old parable of blind men touching an elephant 盲人摸象, in which five blind men each touch only one part of an elephant but insist they understand it in its entirety: the one who touches the trunk thinks it is like a snake; the one who touches the leg thinks it is like a tree; and so on. Urban dwellers in the PRC, as elsewhere, develop their ideas about elephants through films, Disney or other cartoons, or zoo experiences. Wildlife in general is romanticised and personified, but genuine awe and comprehension of the wildness of nature are missing. The term ‘nature-deficit disorder’, which dates to 2005, describes the alienation of humans from nature. With direct experiences of nature — as opposed to ones mediated by modern technology including television and even phone screens — increasingly rare, many people have a compromised understanding of the challenges of, and thus the necessity of support for, wildlife conservation. The conservationists’ more holistic perspective that habitat loss, which in this case resulted in human–elephant conflict 人象冲突, is the primary threat to Asian elephants’ survival is new to most people.

Shrinking habitats have increasingly driven elephants into human landscapes
Source: TchinChine, Flickr

To deal with the wandering elephants, the provincial and local governments prioritised campaigns to teach people safe behaviour around them. Yunnan’s provincial government set up round-the-clock drone teams to monitor every movement of the northbound herd, which included two babies born en route. With the help of the drones, the emergency response team could warn villages and towns of their arrival, contain the curious crowds, and keep them from approaching, surrounding, or teasing these wild giants. People were evacuated from their path to avoid direct interactions with the elephants.

Farmers who had never seen an elephant in their village, such as in Yunnan’s Yimen and Jinning counties, voluntarily gathered crops to welcome the new arrivals. But elephants have more typically terrorised villagers who have had to cope with their encroachment, as encapsulated by the expression ‘talk of elephants and the colour of one’s face changes’ 谈象色变.

Formerly, the elephants of Xishuangbanna were so shy of people they were considered mysterious. They lived inside isolated and ‘island-like’ nature reserves. In Yunnan, these reserves have been increasingly encroached on by agriculture and rubber plantations since the 1970s. Growing populations of both humans and elephants have accelerated demands on and competition for land and resources, especially as shrinking habitats have increasingly driven elephants into human landscapes and exposed them to more appealing human crops. Fields of rice, corn, and sugarcane have provided vast amounts of easily accessible, nutrient-dense food in compact areas; for the elephants, it was like finding a sweetshop right on their doorstep.

Researchers discovered that Yunnan’s elephants had developed a preference for living in a forest matrix with multiple land-use practices, rather than in strictly protected intact forest.3 Increasing numbers of elephant herds had started roaming outside reserves, becoming frequent visitors to neighbouring communities.

Conservation commitments, including bans on killing, have led to the successful recovery of the populations of several wildlife species in China, including the giant panda, Amur tiger, and Tibetan antelope, as well as elephants. The number of wild elephants doubled from 140 in the 1970s to 300 in the 2020s — a total still less than 1 percent of the global Asian elephant population. Growing elephant populations are slowly dispersing into their historical natural ranges and establishing new territories. Meanwhile, natural forests are increasingly encroached on by humans for cultivation or other uses accompanying broad-scale socioeconomic changes, such as a shift from traditional subsistence livelihoods to industrialised and more intensified farming practices. Damage to high-value cash crops further decreases local tolerance of coexistence with wildlife. The recovery of large, conflict-prone, and potentially dangerous wildlife populations creates new dilemmas for conservation efforts, especially when they negatively impact local communities. These dilemmas are not restricted to China: the grey wolves of Yellowstone National Park in the United States, for example, are in a similar situation.

In Yunnan, inevitably, interactions and conflicts between the two strong and intelligent species have increased since the 1990s. After locals had to turn in their firearms following the launch of China’s wildlife protection law in 1989, the elephants of Xishuangbanna gradually lost their fear of people and became habituated to highly tempting farmed food.

Even before the recent exceptional long-distance dispersal event, overlapping activities had resulted in increasing encounters between people and elephants, including on the narrow paths typical of the countryside. Human injuries and deaths became common: between 2011 and 2017, elephants caused thirty-two deaths and 159 injuries across Yunnan province.4 Wild elephants can be especially dangerous when protecting their young.

There are many potentially tragic scenarios familiar to the people who live close to elephant habitats. An elephant herd might be resting in the woods when farmers come to tap rubber in the morning mist. Motorists, including motorcyclists, might not be aware of a solitary male elephant approaching from around a corner. Villagers coming home in the dark might walk directly into the elephants’ territory. Fear and anxiety can fill communities. Angry or frightened farmers might shoot an elephant, pre-emptively or in retaliation. Protecting people and their livelihoods is thus essential to long-term conservation outcomes. In the past decades, governments, researchers, and non-governmental organisations in China and other countries with Asian elephant populations have been diligently seeking solutions to keep the giants away from human settlements. The story of the Asian elephants epitomises the problem of animals coming into conflict with people in shared landscapes, which occurs in China and elsewhere, with animals including tigers, leopards, wolves, bears, crocodiles, primates, and pythons.

The wandering elephants boosted global interest in and sympathy for wildlife threatened by — human caused — anthropogenic environmental changes like habitat loss and climate change, and they present a unique opportunity for a conversation about human–wildlife relations. We who work in wildlife conservation are hopeful that the public in China as elsewhere becomes aware of the line between an imagined conservation utopia and the real challenges faced at the frontline, and becomes part of the conservation journey, helping to channel more resources to help communities turn conflicts 矛盾 into coexistence 共存.