Chinese Elephants on Walkabout

Posted on July 13th 2021

A family of 15 Asian elephants has wandered over 300 miles from their home. Originally from a nature reserve in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, they have headed north without any obvious destination. No one knows why the elephants started migrating or where they’re headed. This is the longest recorded elephant migration in China’s history.

Close human contact

The family is made up of six adult females, three adult males and six juveniles. Currently they are situated near the outskirts of Kunming, a city of more than 8 million people. On their journey they’ve come in to close contact with humans. They’ve had to raid crops, and search for food in towns and villages, even breaking in to kitchens.

Experts are now figuring out how to reduce interactions between the elephants and people. The team involved in keeping an eye on the elephants have one goal: to avoid human-elephant confrontation.

The team on the ground are having to adapt to how they deal with this situation as nothing like it has occurred in China. Authorities are keeping an eye on the elephants using drones and their principal focus is to lure them back south using food bait and physical barriers.

Operation to relocate

The team is trying to predetermine a route for the elephants, and then scatter food along that route so as to entice them. They are using food with a strong aroma such as corn, pineapples and bananas. In addition the team are blocking certain roads that lead to towns and cities so as to try and only give the elephants one choice of route.

In May the team started to use the food bait tactic. The team managed to entice the elephants to make a slight turn south. However, currently the herd is strolling back and forth within a small range. Experts in Asian elegant conservation have suggested that food baiting isn’t a guaranteed option. The elephants need to feel safe so food alone won’t be enough to guide them home.

Relocation Issues

Food baiting also has issues in terms of how much it can be used. Ideally the elephants would not become reliant on human provided food so baiting their route isn’t a perfect solution. Trying to divert them with electric fencing is another tactic being considered.

Some experts are trying to understand why the elephants wanted to leave the reserve in the first place. They may not want to return even if they are assisted in doing so. There are discussions as to whether they should be tranquillised and transported back. However an operation of this size has not been undertaken in Asia. In southern Africa it has been done, but China lacks the expertise and the infrastructure, and there is geographic complexity as Yunnan is densely forested unlike the open areas of Southern Africa.

A sustainable solution

The current efforts of food baiting and fencing are all short-term, with the single goal of preventing wildlife-human conflict. However, the real question is how to create a sustainable long-term solution for the elephants.

Some experts have suggested the best solution would be to create a new national elephant park close to Kunming, where the group is now. There are many nature reserves in Yunnan that have the potential to become a temporary and possibly permanent habitat for the elephants.

If that was to work, then it would be important to build ecological corridors connecting the existing four elephant nature reserves in Yunnan, allowing the animals to migrate easily and safely.

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