A herd of elephants roaming southwest China has captured the imaginations of millions.
Watched by hundreds of police assisted by drones, the huge animals reached Kunming in southern Yunnan Province earlier this week after traveling some 300 miles from their original nature reserve, state media reported.
Adam Chang was hired to deliver corn and pineapples to the elephants, which average 11 feet tall and weigh 11,000 pounds.
He said what he saw was amazing.
“I saw them picking up corn with their trunks,” he told NBC News via the messaging and social media app WeChat.
“They are so much more alive than the ones I saw at the zoo. It was almost as if they had a sacred aura around them, ”he said.
As news of their migration spread across China and went viral online, with many expressing wonder and fascination, experts warned that this rare trip could point to the inevitable and damaging consequences of human encroachment on the natural habitat of elephants.
The herd reached Kunming on June 2, despite police efforts to lure them home. The animals took their time crossing what would have been busy arteries, eating and tripping over irrigation ditches before falling asleep in the nearby woods.
After touring social networks at the end of May, many Internet users were stunned, while some complained of the destruction left in their wake.
Jason Cao, owner of a Yunnan mining company hired by the government to deliver their power, said he didn’t think the damage they caused was serious.
“Elephants are sacred animals that can bring good fortune and peace to Chinese culture, so we are very happy that elephants have come,” he said.
Chang and Cao both refused to give their first names because they had not been allowed to speak to the media by local authorities and feared reprisals. Instead, they asked to be identified with their “American” names.
The herd first caught the attention of foreigners in March 2020 when they left their home in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in southwest Yunnan on the border with Myanmar and Laos. A calf was born in November and two elephants separated from the others in April 2021, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Officials and experts say they don’t know why the herd is migrating.
According to Tammie Matson, zoologist and researcher at the University of Rwanda and director of Matson and Ridley Safaris, elephants can travel long distances if there is not enough habitat to meet their needs.
“Some may be pressured to move away to gain access to these resources in order to avoid competition,” she said.
Xinhua reported that the Asian elephant population in Yunnan has increased from 180 in the 1980s to 300 in 2021. So it is possible that as the number increases, a subgroup has started looking for a new habitat, got lost and continued to travel, according to Nilanga Jayasinghe. , director of the wildlife conservation team at WWF, an international non-governmental organization specializing in wildlife conservation.
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Internet users have many theories as to why elephants migrate, blaming global warming and deforestation.
Asian elephants inhabit forests and grasslands, so deforestation rates in Xishuangbanna, which reached an annual average of 4.1 square miles in 2010, may have contributed to the herd’s migration.
Still, long-distance treks are not unheard of for animals, according to Raman Sukumar, professor of ecology at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, India, with similar migrations taking place in India and Sri Lanka.
These movements can have a negative impact on the health of a herd, he warned.
“I would expect stress levels in elephants to start increasing because elephants are in a totally different type of terrain,” he said. “It’s very densely populated … It’s not that easy for them to move around a city.”
For Hannah Mumby, an assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, it is important to address the root cause of their departure, otherwise this behavior could be repeated.
China’s Central Television news agency captured signs of a second herd of elephants attempting to cross a river in Xishuangbanna.
In the meantime, those who have seen the elephants say the experience is more than memorable.
“Before this meeting, I just felt curious about animals, now I think I would volunteer in animal rights groups to save these giant creatures,” Chang said.