Environmental Protection

Wandering Elephants in Yunnan, China, and Our Stories with Wild Elephants in Africa

Having wild elephants visit the camping centre is one of the frequently shared stories among the Peaceland Foundation anti-poaching volunteers in the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.


Our volunteers were initially shocked, so they built up stakes and wire fences around the camps. Yet the elephants took them off just like they were toothpicks. That’s the beginning of their day by day direct contact with these unusual guests. Slowly, there was an unseen connection between them. Finally, the two species got used to each other, and every encounter became less hassle but more in harmony.


Recent news about the wandering Asian elephants in Yunnan concerned us.


Until last week, the herd of 15 were active between Shijie township and Eshan Yi Autonomous County in Yuxi city. The elephants caught our eyes because if they continually move 8 km north, they will arrive at Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province and with a population of 6.6 million.


But where do they come from?


They migrated from their home, Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve (西双版纳国家级自然保护区勐养片区)since March 2020 and so far, have been trekking 500 km north. On their way, they have passed some densely populated areas like countries and cities.


Their activities are monitored days and nights by Yunnan Forest Firefighting Brigade. People also try to predict and prepare for their next destination. For example, to avoid human-elephant conflict, sometimes elephants were lured away from human neighbourhoods by pineapples and corns. Sometimes, human beings are the ones who need to move to neighbouring villages or simply to upper floors when the elephants were nearby.


We don’t know where they are heading or why they are doing such a long trek. Experts guessed that this might be due to the increasing Asian elephant population in Yunnan and their shrinking habitats. However, their motivation may also be the food. If the trees in the natural reserve grow too densely and intervene in the growth of the grass, the elephants need to leave the thick forest as they feed on the undergrowth. In recent years, other groups of wild elephants are moving out of the nature reserve, yet not as far as these herds do.


Considering the long distance that they have already travelled, we don’t know if they can still go back home by themselves. From our own experience in Mana Pools, it’s unimaginable to anaesthetize all these 15 elephants and transfer them back to their home. In general, “the least interference” is one of the principles in wildlife conservation. Only in rare and dire conditions, we feed and lead. Once, we need to put a GPS collar on one of the elephants in the national park. We witnessed the whole procedure of wild elephant anaesthesia—starting from tracking, isolating the target, anaesthesia, putting on the GPS collar, then waking it up. This is a very delicate process and requires highly professional skills. There were cases world widely that the elephants died from anaesthesia.


Also, this is the process for single elephant. When they are in group, anaesthetizing one of them may easily irritate the rest and trigger hostility. Their protective behaviour as keeping the ‘sleeping one’ in the middle also make the anaesthesia trickier. If we chase them away, the memory of this conflict in those elephants’ head might cause more problems in the future. Therefore, anaesthesia and transfer the whole group back is a last resort.


Whether they return home or move on, to protect the safety of these wandering elephants and the humans they pass by is challenging.


But even though we don’t have an answer for that yet, something already changed in this journey.


For the first time, someone started to know that elephants lie down to sleep and keep the baby in the middle or by their feet, just like our moms cuddling us when we are young; Someone saw the wild elephants for the first time as the latter passed around their village and learned that even the elephants are colossal, they walk so quietly that people can barely hear them. For elephant researchers, in real time they observed and was surprised by that how elephants can quickly adapt to different environments. The wandering elephants inspired millions.


Most importantly, they remind us the urgency to protect wildlife’s habitat.




Author: Tiange Li

Editor: Ling LI