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TRUNK ROUTE

Since leaving their habitat in southern Yunnan Province, a rogue herd of 15 Asian elephants has trekked 500 kilometers north and is showing no signs of returning. Experts are unsure why, and are seeking ways to bring them back

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

The herd of wild Asian elephants treks through crops on their journey northward

On video, the herd seems at ease: feasting on corn placed for them in a village field, swinging their tails from time to time.  

The clip was posted by Yunnan TV on June 16, which reported that officials had evacuated villages around Yuxi, Southwest China���s Yunnan Province to prevent negative human-animal interactions by the 15 Asian elephants that have been wandering north for over two months. 
 
According to local authorities, the trek began in March 2020 when 16 Asian elephants left their home at Mengyangzi Nature Reserve in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna, a prefecture that borders Laos and Myanmar. The elephants were in Pu’er City in July 2020. During their five-month stay, a calf was born. On April 16, 2021, the herd, now numbering 17, set off again. Two eventually returned to Pu’er and joined another herd.  

The rest continued to wander north, and arrived in the suburbs of Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, on June 2. To prevent them from entering densely populated areas, officials placed barriers to the north and put food such as corn, bananas and pineapples to the south to lure them that way.  

The herd is now lingering in the outskirts of Yuxi, a city about 100 kilometers from Kunming. An adolescent elephant that parted ways with the herd on June 5 was anesthetized and returned to Mengyangzi Nature Reserve on July 7.  

The elephants are being monitored around the clock via drones. So far, they have showed no signs of returning to their original habitat or moving toward a specific destination. Experts dispute the exact reasons for the migration and warn the herd faces danger if they remain on the move or in the northern climate for too long.  

Habitat Disputes 
Listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Asian elephants are highly protected in China, where they are mostly concentrated in the tropical forests of Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna and within the city limits of Pu’er and Lincang.  

Covering 100,000 hectares, Mengyangzi Nature Reserve is home to about 90 Asian elephants, a subpopulation of several herds, according to Wang Qiaoyan, a senior engineer at the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve.  

By mid-June, the herd of 15 elephants, which includes six females, three males, three adolescents and three calves, had traveled over 500 kilometers, about halfway across Yunnan Province.  

Although Asian elephants do migrate, experts are surprised by the length of the herd’s trek, and have been stumped as to their direction and destination.  

Some attributed the migration to deforestation in Xishuangbanna as farmers shifted to cultivating rubber and tea.  

“The root cause I think is that the habitat can no longer support the increasing demands of the elephants,” Zhang Li, a field biologist from Beijing Normal University who specializes in Asian elephants and China’s collective forest tenure reform policy, told NewsChina.  

According to Zhang, China’s population of Asian elephants grew from 170 in the 1980s to 300 today, while their habitats shrank from a combined 2,084 square kilometers in 1976 to only 500 square kilometers in recent years.  

In his 2017 thesis published in academic journal Scientific Reports, Zhang wrote that the number of rubber trees in Xishuangbanna, Lincang and Pu’er had increased 23-fold over the past four decades. Water hungry and with dense canopies, the trees have choked the undergrowth that feeds Asian elephants, Zhang wrote.  

Wu Zhaolu, a professor at Yunnan University’s School of Ecology and Environment, supported Zhang’s assessment. “Although the growth of those profitable trees has increased forestation in the area, they eroded the natural forest as well, which has fragmented the animal habitats in Xishuangbanna,” he told NewsChina.  

According to Cao Mengliang, former director of the Xishuangbanna forestry and grassland bureau, the local government has encouraged farmers to plant rubber trees since the 1980s to meet State demand. But the real boom came in the 2000s as natural rubber prices skyrocketed, multiplying about six times between 2002 and 2011. Xishuangbanna has 298,000 hectares of cultivated rubber trees on State land and leased farms.  

In an interview with news portal guancha.cn, Gu Bojian, an expert at Fudan University’s School of Life Sciences in Shanghai, said the farming of cardamom seeds (also known as sha ren), valued in traditional Chinese medicine, is also to blame, as it requires removing all surrounding undergrowth to give them access to sunlight and nutrition.  

This was supported in the 2018 Chinese Traditional Medicine Industry report published by the Xishuangbanna government, which said it owned over 1.9 million mu (126,667 hectares) of cardamom seeds valued at 430.9 million yuan (US$66.5m). In the past, the crop was promoted in poverty alleviation programs for Yunnan’s poorest counties.  

Some experts, however, say cash crops in Xishuangbanna are not solely at fault. “Nature reserves were fragmented when they were established [50 years earlier],” Guo Xianming, director of the Science Institute under the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve who has studied Asian elephants for three decades, told NewsChina. There are five nature reserves in Xishuangbanna. “It’s like the panda reserves in Sichuan Province. They have many panda reserves, large and small, but nobody describes them as ‘fragmented,’” he added.  

Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve is divided into core areas, buffer zones and experimental areas. According to regulations, logging is strictly prohibited in the former two. 
 
“Asian elephants and their habitats have been under stringent protection and there are feeding points in them. That’s why the population of wild Asian elephants in Yunnan has grown so substantially,” Guo said, adding that local farmers planted trees on land allocated to them by the government and were not in violation of animal and forest protection laws.  

Both Guo and Wang Qiaoyan, the senior engineer, believe that the reserves’ successful forestry policies played a part in the herd’s migration. “Elephants will instinctively stamp down young trees of a certain height to prevent them from becoming a forest... As we improve forest protection, the wilderness and secondary forest [where elephants live] decreases annually,” Wang told NewsChina.  

Data from Yunnan’s provincial forestry and grassland bureau showed that forest coverage in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve had increased from 88.9 percent in 1983 to 97.02 percent in 2016. This increased canopy density, which is not good for undergrowth. Wang attributed the migration to shrinking habitats and decreased natural food supplies. 

Guo Xianming said he is fully aware that the Xinshuangbanna nature reserve’s primary goal was not only to protect Asian elephants but also the entire rainforest ecosystem. “Maybe we should have been a little more innovative and flexible in nature reserves dedicated to protecting Asian elephants,” he said.  

The herd of wild Asian elephants on their trek northward

Food Issues 
According to Wang, as increased awareness of endangered animal protection has made humans less of a threat, elephants are leaving reserves where food is becoming scarcer, to feed on farms. “Elephants are not as scared of humans [as they were], they even go onto farmland during the day,” Wang said. “We observed in 2017 that the elephants’ sphere of activity has expanded a lot compared to 2014,” she added.  

Dao Jianhong, deputy director of Xishuangbanna forestry and grassland bureau, agreed. “Once they get used to easy access to crops like corn and sugarcane, they become dependent on them and their dietary habits change accordingly. As a result, they see corn and sugarcane fields as their new habitats and canteens,” he told Link Times, NewsChina’s Southeast Asia edition. 
 
As villagers move from the area or switch to crops that are less appealing to elephants, the food supply within their reach dwindles, forcing them to search even farther for new food sources, Dao said.  

Li Zhongyuan, head of Xishuangbanna Wildlife Conservation Station, told Link Times that his home village within the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve has been relocated to make room for the elephants.  

According to his observations over the years, Asian elephants have long been expanding their ranges. “The elephants move back and forth between the reserve and surrounding farmlands. We don’t have precise records of how frequent their movements have been, but they have indeed been going farther and farther. They may roam two or three kilometers one time, and dozens the next. But they always return in the end. It might be as short as a few days, or as long as a few months,” he said.  

In an interview with NewsChina’s parent agency China News Service, Chen Fei, director of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration’s Asian Elephant Research Center, suggested viewing the elephant migration “in a more rational and scientific way,” as experts have recorded similar migrations in elephant habitats all over the world since their observations began in 1995.  

The Asian elephant herd in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province

Forests in Flux 
In the drone footage, the herd appears quite content and in no hurry to head back. However, experts warn that the elephants could face risks or even die if not guided back in time, as the farther north they go, the less suited they are to the environment.  

“We did not expect the elephants to go that far... We hope they return to Xishuangbanna where there is relatively abundant food for them, especially in winter,” Guo Xianming said.  

But concerns abound whether the elephants’ original habitat is still suited for them and able to support their growing numbers.  

In a recent interview with the Xinhua News Agency, Wu Minglu with the China Wildlife Conservation Association said that according to its 2018 survey in Yunnan, 62.4 percent of Asian elephants live outside of nature reserves, 22.9 percent are within reserves and 14.7 percent are scattered around their edges. The elephants tend to settle in habitats rich in natural vegetation at an altitude of no more than 1,300 meters.  

“Farm crops only supplement the wild elephant diet. Their major food sources are still in the forests. We must restore their natural habitats so they don’t become dependent on farm crops,” Cao said.  

Guo told NewsChina that Xishuangbanna has been trying to restore elephant habitats since 2010. They planted herbaceous species that Asian elephants find tasty in Lianhua Tang, an area far from human settlements, while working to control the growth and density of the forest in the reserves.  

The projects, however, are costly and timeconsuming, since workers have to remove the underbrush manually.  

“Nature reserves used to burn dead brush to promote new growth, which provides a good food source for both farmed and wild animals... However, the practice was banned to limit pollution,” Guo said.  

“We are planning to resume controlled burns... The latest revision to the forestry law allows for restoring habitats of certain species, but does not detail what kind of repairs are allowed,” he added. 

Work to reclaim the indigenous forests from rubber and tea trees is underway. Zhang Xiyan, secretary-general of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Rainforest Foundation, told NewsChina that besides economic compensation, villagers are encouraged to work in local tourism and plant trees like padauk, a species valued for its wood.  

Although it takes four or five decades for such trees to grow, future generations will benefit. According to Zhang, by the end of 2020, the foundation had helped convert 323 mu (21.5 hectares) of rubber trees to natural forest.  

Zhu Hongjin, director of Xishuangbanna forestry and grassland bureau said that instead of removing all the rubber trees and tea trees, a major income source for locals, they are aiming for “near-tropical forest” in these areas by manually planting undergrowth. However, their work is still in the experimental phase.  

“The population of elephants is growing fast, and we are not ready to cope with it,” Chen Mingyong, a professor with the School of Ecology and Environmental Science of Yunnan University, told Link Times. He warned that once elephants begin regularly migrating north for food, it would burden the budgets of local governments and bode ill for the elephants’ survival. 

Both Chen and Guo agree that the best solution is to establish a national park for Asian elephants. “Nature reserves do not cater to Asian elephants alone, but rather protect the whole forest ecology which includes a wide variety of species,” Guo told NewsChina.  

“While we’re setting up the national park, we can work out more detailed designs. We can have separate zones for Asian elephants and other animals, and manage different kinds of forests separately. We can also zone the land around the nature reserves where people live,” he said. 

“Humans and elephants have to get things back on the right track and be fully secure in their own habitats. It’s better to admire and respect each other from afar. That’s the ideal for humans and elephants alike,” Guo said, adding that such planning would require policies from the central government. 

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