In China, the country with the highest demand for elephant tusks and where lust for ivory threatens the species’ survival, pachyderms have found a refuge in a nature reserve established with the goal of raising awareness about wildlife.
The 10,000-sq.-kilometer (3,862-sq.-mile) Mengyang wildlife refuge is located in the southern district of Xishuangbanna, a region known as “Chinese Thailand” on the border with Laos and Myanmar (Burma).
Strolling on a walkway made of wooden planks a few meters (yards) above the ground, visitors hope that some of the 150 wild elephants living in the reserve will make an appearance.
“We estimate they come through here every 1.3 days,” Zhang Zhongqin, a member of the management staff at the sanctuary, told EFE.
In Mengyang, wild elephants roam free through a forest with all the resources the animals need, veterinarian Bao Minwei said, adding that the facility “is one of the best places in the world for pachyderms.”
“The main reason is the surroundings, with a large forested area without humans, many small rivers and a large supply of the foods they eat,” Bao said.
The existence of an elephant sanctuary in China is surprising given that the country is the world center for the illegal ivory trade, catering to a demand that threatens the survival of the species.
Most of the ivory traded in the world’s second-largest economy is from Africa, where poaching is at record levels.
In southern China, the government protects elephants and defends their rights, even putting them above those of local residents.
“The main problem we currently have is that of confrontations with peasants,” researcher Yang Zhengbin said.
“Wild elephants cannot be controlled and sometimes they eat the crops,” Yang said, adding that bad encounters between humans and pachyderms result in an average of two peasants killed each year.
The government pays compensation, but residents consider the money inadequate.
The option of relocating the elephants is not even under discussion.
“We do not have anywhere to take them,” Yang said.
The lack of physical boundaries is also a threat to the animals since poachers lurk outside the park.
“In countries like Laos and Burma, hunting is less regulated and (the elephants) are attacked,” Yang said. “Here, there are heavy penalties for killing an elephant, although sometimes poachers do cross in.”
Since the reserve opened in 2008, about a dozen people have worked to check the pachyderms’ health and sometimes stage rescues, as in the case of Yang Niu, a 2-month-old female elephant found abandoned recently and who suffers from a heart condition.
The reserve’s hospital is currently caring for 10 elephants.
“Some were wounded by poachers, others in fights with other elephants or encounters with peasants,” veterinarian Bao told EFE.
“We try to care for them and return them to the wild, but so far we have been unsuccessful. They do not adapt to life back in the wild,” Bao said after taking RanRan, injured by a clamp trap and nearly killed when he was 3, for a walk.
The stories of Ranran and other elephants in the hospital are told at the facility’s museum.
“Our main goal is to raise awareness among the people about the protection and care of elephants,” Zhang said.