A Herd of Wild Elephants Is Wandering Around China

They've caused $1.1 million in damage and they're being tracked by drones.

Thomas Cristofoletti / WWF-US Images show herd of Asian elephants in Kuri Buri National Park, Thailand
The wandering Asian elephants in China are similar to these at Kuri Buri National Park in Thailand.

Thomas Cristofoletti / WWF-US 

A herd of 15 Asian elephants has had quite the adventure since escaping from a nature reserve in China about a year ago. Although locally famous for their exploits, the marauding group is just now starting to earn international fame.

The elephant herd (also called a parade) has traveled about 310 miles from its home in the forests of the southwest Yunnan province before reaching the provincial capital city of Kunming, according to Chinese media.

Along the way, they’ve trampled farms looking for food and water, causing an estimated $1.1 million worth of damage, according to state news agency Xinhua. There have been 412 separate reports of damage, and the elephants have destroyed 56 hectares of farmland in the counties of Yuanjiang and Shiping alone, the agency said.

Authorities have used food to distract the elephants from villages in order to keep people and dwellings safe. At times, they’ve evacuated residents to keep them out of the elephants’ path. They’ve sent police to clear roads and to escort the herd.

There are a dozen drones keeping track of the animals around the clock and many fans share images on the social media site Weibo. There, thousands of people liked and many commented when the elephants took a group nap, surrounding a baby elephant to keep it safe.

What Started the Trek?

Experts aren’t totally sure what prompted the elephants to leave and why they are still wandering.

"We really don’t know why this herd left their home range, so it’s important to understand the conditions may have led to the elephants making the long journey," Nilanga Jayasinghe, Asian Species Manager at World Wildlife Fund-US, tells Treehugger. "It’s possible that the herd went in search of new habitat and got lost along the way."

Jayasinghe points out that in Asia, the most significant threats to elephants are habitat loss and human-wildlife interactions that result because of that loss.

"Elephants have significant space and resource needs. In Asia, there has been significant habitat loss over the past decades and because elephants range over long distances, much of their habitat is found outside protected areas," she says. "As they move through areas that have various land-use practices, human-elephant interactions are becoming more and more frequent, leading to significant damage and loss of life for both people and wildlife."

So far, no one has been hurt during the elephants’ spree, but so much other damage has been done.

"In this case, these elephants have already caused significant damage along their path to Kunming, but the authorities have done a commendable job monitoring the herd and informing people to prevent interactions," Jayasinghe points out.

"Authorities are working with local elephant experts to determine the next best steps on how to keep the elephants and people safe. More broadly, addressing issues of human-wildlife interactions must be thought out carefully after gaining a good understanding of the context for the issue. Comprehensive measures that aim for coexistence and address both the immediate conflicts as well as the root causes of those conflicts, habitat loss, for example, are needed." 

Following the Adventure

While elephant experts are working to keep everyone safe, fans are enjoying the elephant adventures.

“I hope this long elephant journey will be successful, but... the elephants should have a serious talk with the current team leader,” wrote one commenter on YouTube.

Another wrote, “It's so nice to know that the villagers and authorities are willing to adjust with the elephants.”