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Chinese specialist explains epic jumbo wandering
Published on: Sunday, June 05, 2022
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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The wandering elephants invaded what looks like a tea plantation.
REMEMBER the world was awe-struck and fascinated after reports of a herd of wild elephants ‘moved out’ of home and wandered for more than a year across built-up China, went viral?

But when least expected it, Chinese elephant specialist, Dr Becky Shu Chen was in Sabah to speak about it on May 27 in a session dubbed “Promoting connectivity through non-linear infrastructures” at the 2nd Asia Parks Congress held in the Sabah International Convention Centre May 24-29. What happened?

The 15-strong herd literally abandoned its wild habitat in its Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve (241,000ha) southwest China in March 2020 and started tromping northwards across villages, crashing into houses, munching crops and, entered cities in Yunan eventually reaching the outskirts of Kunming, a 8.5-million strong Yunan provincial capital city, before turning around to head home. 

The whole epic journey lasted 17 months.

Curious about the mystery behind this much-publicised epic adventure of the strayed elephants, I intercepted Dr Shu for a never-to-be missed story.     

Dr Shu   

 

Daily Express: So what happened. What’s the story of the wandering elephants?

Dr Shu:
Back in 1970, we only got 140 elephants but right now we got 300. In other words, its population had doubled. The elephants are big animals, they need a big space, get out and going out to set up new territories. In 1990 we found out some herds slowly left the Reserve and they went out to set up new territories. That is the general story but as I pointed out, our elephants had doubled in numbers they had not many forests left outside the Reserve, so the elephants chose to stray in the community region with maybe a lot of plantations. 

Then back to March 2020 one herd of 15 left their traditional range in the tropical forests so they went north and kept on the journey for about a year, reached the outskirts of Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan.  

These elephants’ dispersal was associated with the climate events. There had been drought in the past 50 years. By 2020, we got an extreme drought which lasted a year up to the elephants’ departure (food became scarcer?). And that was during the Covid-19 lock down, there were not many people active outside, not many people on the roads, not many cars so maybe the elephants explored a lot more, they left for Kunming.

DE: What was done to turn the elephants back to their home habitat?   

Dr Shu:
The Government had to make sure that the elephants were not going to the cities. In fact they did go into several small cities on the way already, creating a lot of damage up to US$1 million. To think what they may do in big cities like the 8.5 million population Kunming, the Government tried for almost for half a year to help the elephants go back. Finally these elephants went back, with the help from the Government (involving a task force of thousands of soldiers, electric fences, artificial paths etc). 

That’s why they had to bait them, used tons of food (reportedly 180 tons of corn, bananas, pineapples) to attract them back and also they used people to drive the big trucks to keep them off from the road to make sure they go certain direction. There’s a lot of money spent, not only losses like crop damage, property damage (including insurance compensation), huge cost in terms of people, 3,000 people being involved in the big journey to bring them back. Then they had to fly drones every day to monitor where the animals were going so that they knew the elephants’ certain direction and evacuating people out. Basically we were not getting the elephants out of the way, instead we got the people out of the way to let the elephants cross. So this story is quite exceptional.

DE: How far did they travel in this epic journey? 

Dr Shu:
600km one way so the return journey is actually 1,300km – very extreme and nobody knew whether they could go back but the Government made them go back. 



Wandering herd hitting the urban street of Eshan, Yunan at night. 


A member of the wandering herd hitting a crowded city street in broad daylight. 

DE: Where is their habitat of origin?

Dr Shu:
The original habitat was Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, a region in southwest China at the border between Laos and Myanmar, it’s a tropical range.

DE: You said these are Asian elephants. Are these Asian elephants native to China?

Dr Shu:
China has 300 Asian elephants now. We only have one herd. Because China borders with Laos and Myanmar, you have elephants travel between Laos and China – they are international elephants which don’t need passport, they just travel in the region, they cannot go anyway, there is a trap in the region.

DE: You said in your presentations elephants are very important. Maybe you can tell us your work in elephant conservation in China?

Dr. Shu:
Like I mentioned in my presentation, there are two major threats. Because hunting is not a big issue in China but may happen still especially in African countries but for Asian elephants there are two big threats, one is habitat loss, fragmentation so the elephants don’t have enough space, this leads to human-elephant conflict. If they come to raid the crops, and sometimes they kill people so it reduces the tolerance of communities to live with them. So people keep on protecting their families, their lands. When you talk about habitat loss and connectivity, the park reserves are too far away. Because the elephants cannot get genetic exchange any more, they may have inbreeding issue where some herds cannot have genetic exchange in the long-term.

DE: Generally what’s the status of the Asian elephants now?

Dr Shu:
Threatened, endangered because only 50,000 are left in the world it’s not a lot. Sumatran elephants are critically endangered. Sabah’s elephants, though smaller are considered Asian elephants too, may be a sub species.

DE: Where are most of the Asian elephants?

Dr Shu:
India, which has 30,000 or 60pc, followed by Sri Lanka – 5,000, Sabah has 2,000, West Malaysia about 1200 to 1400, Laos has 500, China 300 etc (all distributed discontinuously across the Asian continent).

DE: What is the future of the Asian elephant? 

Dr Shu:
Try to find a way to coexist with elephants because it is hard to live with elephants. We are not living with elephants that we don’t know. We say elephants are cute, they are living in the zoo, they are cute, they are not. Elephants kill people, it’s very stressful to live with elephants, very stressful. 


DE: According to a 2019 Google report, elephants killed 2,300 people in India.

Dr Shu:
Yes, because if you have an encounter, in fact in some regions they don’t have lights, so if you come back from your work, get off from your bus, and you go home on a small road, maybe the elephants are at the corner. 

So this is the time most kills happen. 

DE: Have you seen Sabah’s Bornean elephant?  

Dr Shu:
Yes, two years ago in Sukau during Asian Elephant Specialist meeting held in Kota Kinabalu.

- Dr Becky Shu Chen works for the Zoological Society of London’s China Programmes. She is a native of Kunming, Yunnan Province.

This is one image that fascinated millions – how the exhausted elephants all lie sideways to sleep at night. 

Herd wandering into a village. 

 

Crucial moment wandering herd crossing bridge over the Yuansiang River on their return leg. 





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