Update on China’s marauding elephants as they baffle scientists

Posted by David Henning on 23 June 2021

Since these Asian elephants left Xishuangbanna Biosphere Reserve, located in  Southwest China, they’ve made their way through China’s Yunnan province. A captivating journey that has baffled scientists, who have been unable to provide conclusive answers to this recent phenomenon.

An ariel photo of the herd near Yuxi City, taken on 19 June. Picture: Xinhua News Agency

The elephants entered Kunming City on 2 June, a metropolis of 6 million people, for a night on the town before settling down for a nap. But so far, scientists have not been able to say with authority why these animals are migrating.

It is not unusual for elephants to travel small distances, but this herd has been trekking across China for more than a year, having strayed 500km from their original habitat.

Interesting observations

Joshua Plotnik, assistant professor of elephant psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, told the BBC that this migration might have something to do with the social dynamics of the group.

Elephants tend to be matriarchal, with the oldest and wisest being the leader of the group. Males tend to break away after they’ve reached puberty, linking up with herds of other males for a short time. They only return to females temporarily to mate before leaving again.

This herd started with three males, with two peeling away within the first month and another male moving away from the herd earlier this month.

What is interesting, is that the last male stayed with the herd for so long. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, professor and principal investigator at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden told the BBC that this was probably because of the unfamiliar territory. When observing the elephants as they walk through villages or towns, they move close together, a sign of stress as they are likely to experience anxiety in unfamiliar territory.

It was also surprising when two elephants gave birth to calves on the journey, as it is unusual for them to move to new areas when they are about to give birth.

Another sighting showed the herd’s antics in Kunming City, where drone footage showed the elephants laying down on the city’s outskirts – an unusual site. Elephants do not necessarily sleep lying down unless they are completely exhausted.

The Elephants settling down for a nap after a night in the town. Picture: Xinhua News Agency.

Much of elephants’ communication is via infrasonic sound, the vibrations of their feet, says Lisa Olivier at Game Rangers to the BBC. In towns and cities, they hear the sounds of vehicles, which must exhaust and overwhelm them. This is raising questions as to why these animals are putting themselves through such stress, even when some members are pregnant.

In search of food?

Professor William Lawrence from the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University deduces that the elephants may have been forced to move because their home in Southern China is being devastated by human development.

He comments that even though the efforts of Chinese authorities to monitor and escort the elephants throughout their travels are laudable, they are misplaced.  Their response only addresses the symptoms of environmental stress but not the factors affecting elephants in China and beyond.

Even though the Xishuangbanna region is home to China’s largest tropical rainforest, much of it has been cleared for exotic rubber tree plantations.

Large tracts of rainforests in the elephants’ natural environment have been cleared for rubber plantations. Picture: Wikipedia commons

This puts strain on already scarce food resources, where these elephants eat up to 200kg of food every day. The strain on their food resources may have encouraged these animals to migrate, even when some are pregnant, in search of greener pastures.

Where are the elephants now?

According to China’s state news agency, Xinhua News Agency, the elephants were captured on 19 June near Yuxi City, China’s Yunnan Province. The elephant that strayed was seen about 25km away from the herd, and all 15 elephants are safe.

An ariel photo of the elephants near Yuxi City. Taken on 19 June. Picture: Xinhua News Agency


China’s Marauding Elephants





yoast-primary - 1004391
tcat - Environment
tcat_slug - environment
tcat2 - Environment
tcat2_slug - environment
tcat_final -