They left sometime in March 2020. Nobody knows why. 16 Asian elephants – cows, bulls and calves that lived in a sanctuary in southern China – marched off. Slowly, steadily, further and further north. Maybe they even had a goal.
Migrations are part of the elephant’s natural behavioral repertoire. Once on the go, Asian elephants usually travel around three kilometers a day. However, this trip is remarkable for its length. The animals have already covered more than 500 kilometers.
According to experts, it is the longest such hike that has ever been observed in China. Their route did not always lead them through wilderness. They marched through villages and small towns, across fields – and through the suburbs of the metropolis of Kunming.
Attraction and threat
In photos and video clips, for example, you can see them walking along an expressway in the lantern light. Wherever they appeared, roads were closed and settlements evacuated. According to media reports, the population experienced it as an attraction rather than a threat.
It all started in the Xishuangbanna reservation in the southern part of the Chinese province of Yunnan. Here, in the tropical region between Myanmar and Laos, the threatened Asian elephants are protected from poachers. After setting off in March 2020, the animals reached the city of Pu’Er, 100 kilometers north of their reserve, which is world-famous for its tea.
Drones and escort vehicles
The group stayed there for five months, during which time one of the elephant cows gave birth to a calf. Then they set off again, this time for their big journey: from April to May 2021 they hiked further north, covering around 500 kilometers within 40 days.
They passed through the cities of Eshan and Yuxi before finally reaching the outskirts of Kunming in early June. At that time they already had fans around the world. They were observed and filmed on site. The movements of the elephants were tracked with around a dozen drones. At times up to 200 vehicles are said to have accompanied the trek.
One death and millions in damages
Attempts were made to lure the animals away from settlements by deliberately laying out corn and pineapples. Nevertheless, there were always encounters between humans and elephants. Angry residents report how the elephants invaded their homes, devastated their gardens and trampled fields. The damage that the pachyderms have caused is estimated at around one million US dollars. A human was killed by the elephants near Pu’Er.
Local authorities called for nothing to be left lying around that could be potential food for the animals and to avoid contact with them. A statement said: “It is forbidden to circling or staring at the elephants or disturbing them with fireworks or in any other way.”
The herd grew because calves were born. It shrank because individual animals left the group. There are now 15. However, researchers are still puzzling over the motivation of the animals.
Away, but where?
In any case, the trek is increasingly becoming an example of the conflict that takes place in various ways around the world between protected large and dangerous wild animals and the population – be it jaguars in South America, lions in southern Africa, sharks in Australia or meanwhile again the wolf in Germany. Because, especially for large wild animals, large reserves are often not big enough. In Xishuangbanna, for example, the home of the herd, the animals find protection.
Over the past 40 years, however, their number has also grown from 180 to around 300. A hardly surprising thesis is that there was simply not enough space left. It is possible that this population pressure aroused a wandering instinct and they are simply looking for new habitats. That’s why she may not be pulling anything back home.
But they can’t stay anywhere either. Because areas that meet their requirements are rare in southern China. It actually doesn’t exist anymore. Forests in which they could live had to give way to tea plantations in recent years, and highways cut through the old hiking routes. In the past 20 years, 40 percent of the elephant habitats in Yunnan have disappeared, researchers write in a letter in the journal “Nature”. In the meantime, the experts also suspect that the hustle and bustle disturbed the animals so much that they lost their orientation – and that they would find their way back by chance if they wanted to.
In any case, the herd is still on the move. And there is still tons of feed being laid out to guide their way. Maybe with success. Instead of moving further north, they are now the other way around. They were again in a part of Yuxi in mid-June. Around this time a bull elephant separated from the group and walked on alone. He too roamed through villages in search of food. He covered 190 kilometers. Then it was decided to end his journey: he was captured and transported to the reserve. Recently, an injured, abandoned calf was also taken to a sanctuary.
For the time being, however, the herd remains a wandering memorial for the conflict between humans and big game.