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For the past 17 months, a wandering herd of elephants in China has embarked on an adventure of mammoth proportions.
Now, after straying hundreds of kilometres from their nature reserve, the animals are on the final leg of their journey home, Chinese officials announced last week.
From breaking into villagers’ homes to giving birth while on the road, it’s been an epic journey that could have been straight out of The Lord of the Rings.
This is the story of how the fellowship of elephants journeyed there and back again.
Leaving the Shire
Tucked in the bottom end of the southern Yunnan province, the sprawling Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve lies right by the border of Myanmar and Laos. A lush tropical forest that stretches for about 241,000 hectares – about one and a half times the size of London – it is home to most of Yunnan’s endangered Asian elephants.
Some time in March 2020, a herd of about 14 elephants decided to leave this jungle paradise, heading north.
Nobody batted an eyelid at first. Wild elephants are known to roam freely and regularly in the region, such that one city, Pu’er, even runs “elephant canteens” to feed their large visitors. Most don’t stray very far, and usually head home after a while. But months after the herd left, officials started to realise that this was no ordinary trip.
This realisation literally hit home earlier this year when reports emerged of the elephants crashing into people’s houses, munching on their crops, and guzzling their water.
CCTV footage of the elephants wandering around the streets of various cities also went viral.
Even now experts remain baffled by their behaviour. But in a paper due to be published soon in the Conservation Letters journal, a team of China-based experts led by Professor Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz theorise that the elephants left to find more food due to several reasons.
One is the growing elephant population – and thus greater competition for food. Thanks to conservation efforts by Chinese authorities, the province has seen its elephant population nearly double over the last three decades to about 300.
“Now we need to deal with the consequences of this success, which is a real challenge because the elephants are running out of physical space to move without interacting with people, crops, or infrastructure,” Prof Campos-Arceiz, a principal investigator at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, told the BBC.
An extreme drought, which lasted for a year up to the elephants’ departure, also led food to be more scarce.
Others have pointed out that over the decades, deforestation and encroaching farmland have reduced elephants’ habitats in China outside protected areas.
Authorities have tried to boost forest protections. But ironically this has also meant less available food for the elephants within nature reserves, with a thicker forest canopy blocking off more sunlight, resulting in fewer edible plants growing in the understorey, said Prof Campos-Arceiz.
As the herd headed northwards over the green hills and forests of Yunnan, Chinese officials swung into action. An emergency taskforce was set up, marshalling a cast of thousands to guide the elephants away from villages and cities.
Elephants are known for their voracious appetite, and so far they have wolfed down a staggering 180 tonnes of corn, bananas, pineapples and other food laid out for them. Even a sideview mirror was torn off by a curious elephant inspecting a vehicle.
In April two elephants peeled off and decided to return home. Another one strayed in June, and officials eventually tranquilised and transported him home as they were worried that he would not survive alone. All three were males, which usually travel alone.
But the tribe welcomed new members too: at least two elephants gave birth, according to Prof Campos-Arceiz.
Throughout it all, the people of China remained transfixed. The Asian elephants of Yunnan became a household name as their adventures became national news, and villagers lined their route hoping for a glimpse.
Every movement was closely monitored not just by the drones but also scientists studying their trails and faeces, and even paparazzi livestreamers who ate their leftover pineapples.
The elephants also got their own celebrity rumour – a claim that they “got drunk” after consuming tonnes of corn wine was quickly debunked by experts.
By early June, the herd had reached the provincial capital of Kunming – more than 500km from home and the furthest any Yunnan wild elephant had ever gone. Some began to worry for their survival as they headed to cooler climes and prolonged their interaction with human civilisation.
What many saw as endearing behaviour, such as roaming in towns as a close pack and lying down for a nap, were actually signs of stress and exhaustion, experts have told the BBC. Much to officials’ relief, the elephants began turning southwards a few weeks later, and soon neared the Yuanjiang river.
Authorities said that within the herd’s immediate radius, only one bridge was suitable for an elephant crossing.
The taskforce sent out thousands of soldiers and workers to lay out food as bait, set up electric fences, create artificial paths, and even sprinkle water on roads to ensure they were cool enough for the elephants to step on.
But the animals were less reluctant to follow. What would have been a straightforward 30km journey turned into a 143km trek as they wandered off-piste, according to reports.
There is no guarantee that they will make it all the way back home, nor stay for long even if they do. Shen Qingzhong, a senior engineer with the nature reserve, told reporters that it was “almost certain that the elephants will start moving north again eventually”.
But even if their return is delayed, the elephants have already achieved the impossible, embarking on an epic journey that has raised global awareness about the plight of their endangered species.
Tolkien would have been proud.