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China’s wandering elephants

Nov 17, 2021

Over a year ago, 16 Asian Elephants set off on a long march across China in an epic journey that has seen them cover almost 500 kilometres.

It is not quite clear why the herd set off on this journey but it is one that has brought them many rewards. It has also become the longest ever journey undertaken by China’s elephants.

In the spring of 2020, the elephants began their journey from a nature reserve in a part of southern China, not far from its border with Laos. It is not unusual for elephants to wander widely – their huge size and therefore their big appetites (wild elephants eat around 150 kilos of grass, leaves and other fodder each day) makes them range far and wide. So, the journey was not noticed initially. In April 2021, more than a year after they started, watchers realized that the elephants had already traveled around 370 kilometers north of their home, which is very unusual.

On the journey north, the elephants have tasted many kinds of food. While government officers put out truckloads of corn and pineapple to divert them away from crowded areas, the elephants have also feasted on crops and stored grains along the way. The elephants have apparently damaged crops worth one million dollars so far! Due to their protected status (as they are endangered), they haven’t been harmed in any way yet. It thus appears that the availability of tasty food, different from their usual fare, is driving their journey onward.

Will they head turn back? Two elephants already have but thanks to the birth of a calf, the wandering herd’s strength still stands at 15. The elephants are now near the city of Kunming.

Experts warn that a plan is required to ensure conflict doesn’t break out between the wandering elephants and people whose crops or property they destroy. Back here in India, destruction caused to crops has even led to the death of elephants. Of course India has far more elephants than China – 27000 compared to the approximately 300 in China (more than half of the world’s Asian Elephants live in India). Chinese officials are monitoring the herd’s movements closely to ensure there is no conflict.

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