Niu Minghui is concerned about the group of wild Asian elephants that pay surprise visits to steal crops from his backyard.
“I did not dare to turn on the lights, and put my mobile on silent,” said Niu, 29, of Shiban village, in southwest China’s Yunnan Province.
Niu quietly called the village elephant expert who tried to use firecrackers to scare it away, but it didn’t work. Instead, the elephant took his time, spending about 40 minutes enjoying its stolen meal.
“Maybe he was just too hungry,” Niu said. “It is OK if the elephants steal a little food as long as they do not attack.”
Conflicts between elephants and humans are on the rise in Yunnan.
According to the provincial forestry bureau, more than 48,000 cases of wild elephants causing chaos were reported in Yunnan from 2011 to 2015, resulting in 18 deaths, 27 injuries and economic losses of about 99 million yuan (14 million U.S. dollars). The government compensated the families of the victims with more than 98 million yuan.
Wild Asian elephants are Class A protected animals in China, with a population mainly scattered in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, and in the cities of Pu’er and Lincang.
According to China’s wildlife protection law, organizations and individuals have a responsibility to protect wild animals and their habitat. Hunting endangered wildlife and damaging their habitat are illegal.
China’s efforts to protect the ecosystem have helped wild elephant numbers grow from less than 180 in the 1990s to about 300 currently, but the animals are still facing extinction, said Yang Yun, head of Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve Administration.
“In the past decade, we have tried to raise awareness to protect wild Asian elephants,” Yang said. “We also worked with several provinces in Laos as part of cross-border protection.”
Chen Mingyong, a life science professor at Yunnan University, said that despite the growing number, wild elephants are still at risk of disappearing in China, particularly as villagers often “take revenge on the elephants for causing trouble.”
Chen Yong, a wildlife protection official in Xishuangbanna, said that as the elephant numbers grow, more conflict between beast and man is inevitable.
In 2015 a pregnant wild elephant was shot dead by villagers in Yunnan after attacking local residents. Two wild elephants died the same year after eating crops sprayed with pesticides.
Li Zhao, head of the forestry bureau of Pu’er City, said the city has increased investment, closed hillsides, held training sessions on elephant attacks and bought insurance, to mitigate against the conflict.
“The city gives out more than 16 million yuan every year for wild elephant protection and for compensation for damage caused by the animals,” Li said. “We will increase investment in the future, and will try to launch a monitoring and warning system.”
Li added that the city is considering building a national park for wild elephants.
In July two wild elephants were born in Yunnan’s Menghai County. Local officials named one of them “Little Peace,” after soliciting public opinion.
“The name is a reflection of our common wish,” said Xu Xin, deputy county magistrate of Menghai. “We hope that in the future, the people and animals can just live in peace.”