The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A herd of elephants has roamed 300 miles across China and is headed toward a city

In this aerial photo taken May 28 and released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a herd of wild Asian elephants stands in Eshan county in southwestern China's Yunnan province. (Hu Chao/Xinhua News Agency/AP)
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No one knows where they are going or why. Since March 2020, a family of wild elephants in southwest China has trekked more than 300 miles, traveling north through fields, highways, villages and towns.

They have stolen crops, rolled around in villagers’ courtyards looking for food, and broken into a car dealership where they drank buckets of water and left muddy footprints. The herd has been labeled “The Northbound Wild Elephant Eating and Walking Tour.” In one incident, a young elephant reportedly raided a villager’s stores of corn liquor and fell behind, according to the Eshan police.

“We have no way of telling where they are going,” Chen Mingyong, a professor at Yunnan University who studies wild elephants, told state broadcaster CCTV.

“It is common for Asian elephants to migrate, but in the past that has mostly been to look for food within their habitats,” he said. “An exodus this far north is quite rare.”

From local residents to officials and TikTok influencers, the country has been transfixed by the family of 15 Asian elephants who have ignored police sirens and trucks laden with food, attempts to lure them home to their nature reserve in Xishuangbanna near China’s border with Laos and Myanmar.

On Wednesday, the family reached the outskirts of Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, where authorities fear deadly accidents between residents and the wild animals will become more likely. Traffic controls were put in place outside a village near the city of Yuxi, where the elephants were expected to pass. Crowds gathered to watch from a distance, according to local media reports. Farmers grabbed piles of dung to use as fertilizer while bloggers set up their phones to film themselves.

Chinese researchers, describing the migration as “unprecedented” in China, said the elephants may be on a quest for food and territory as a result of their shrinking habitat in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in Yunnan. The wild elephant population in Xishuangbanna and two neighboring regions almost doubled to around 300 as a result of two decades of conservation, according to data from the forestry department in 2018.

“We’ve seen elephants expanding their range for decades now, as their populations increase, and they search for more food for the growing herd,” said Becky Shu Chen, a conservation project coordinator at the Zoological Society of London who has studied elephant-human interactions.

According to Shu Chen, Asian elephants traditionally have huge home ranges, within which they search for food, moving according to the season. As those range have shrunk, the result of more land being devoted to rubber plantations and other agricultural uses, the elephants now find themselves roaming among crops and closer to humans.

“You could say that the increase in agricultural land and plantations in their territory is, for elephants, like finding a big sweet shop, right on their doorstep,” she said.

The wandering herd has caused about 6.8 million yuan ($1.1 million) in lost crops, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Cao Dafan, project lead of Asian Elephant Protection, wrote in an article on the group’s WeChat page that possible reasons could be shifts in their environment, drought or changes in food supply. “Some experts have also discussed whether it is a random choice in itself, which makes sense in my opinion,” he wrote.

“Inexperienced leadership” of the elephant in charge could be another reason for the long journey to nowhere, according to Chen, the professor at Yunnan University. “Maybe it got it wrong but still thinks it’s going the right way,” he said.

Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

This report has been updated.

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