June 17, 2021
While they are already famous at home, China’s wandering elephants are rapidly becoming international stars. Global media has been chronicling the herd’s yearlong, 300-mile (500-kilometer) trek from their home in a wildlife reserve in mountainous southwest Yunnan province to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kunming. Twitter and YouTube are full of clips of their various antics, particularly those of two calves who slipped into an irrigation ditch and had to be helped out of the ditch by older members of the group. What motivated the elephants to make their epic trek remains a mystery. I think they just went for a vacation trek during the lockdown.
The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is the only living species of the genus Elephas and is distributed throughout the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. There are three recognized subspecies, E. m. maximus from Sri Lanka, E. m. indicus from mainland Asia and E. m. sumatranus from the island of Sumatra. The genus Elephas originated in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Pliocene and spread through Africa before they too went on a trek and expanded into the southern half of Asia. The Asian elephant is the largest living land animal in Asia and has been listed on the endangered species list since 1986. The population has declined by at least 50 percent over the last three elephant generations (60 – 75 years), primarily from loss of habitat, habitat degradation, range fragmentation, and poaching. It seems their trek cannot get them away from people.
The 15-member herd has been caught at night trotting down urban streets by security cameras, filmed constantly from the air by more than a dozen drones and followed by those seeking to minimize damage and keep both elephants and people out of harm’s way. They have raided farms for food and water (roadside café?), visited a car dealership (checking options for travel?), and even showed up at a retirement home (thinking ahead?), where they poked their trunks into some of the rooms. While no animals or people have been hurt, reports put damage to crops at more than $1 million. Sixteen animals were originally in the herd, but two ended their trek (typical tour group) and returned home. A baby calf (not so typical) has also been born. Some have speculated the reason for the trek is their leader simply got lost. And they say elephants never forget.
Thoughts: According to Nilanga Jayasinghe, manager for Asian species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, Asian elephants are loyal to their home ranges unless there have been disturbances, loss of resources, or development, in which case they may go on a trek for new resources. There are less than 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. One YouTube follower made this comment about the elephant trek, “We should be more like the elephant and be more family oriented, take family vacations and help and care for and protect each other.” While the thought may be anthropomorphic, these are wise words to live by. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.