Epic journey of Asian elephant family
A family of wild elephants headed north from their home in southwest China on April 16, sparking an odyssey that has captured the imagination of people in China and become a global news event.
The 16 Asian elephants left their traditional habitat in Xishuangbanna and arrived in the Yuxi area, near Kunming. It was the first time a wild Asian elephant had walked outside Xishuangbanna, Lincang or Pu'er .
The now famous elephant herd had been living in Mengyang, where Wang Bin works. He is the deputy director of the Mengyang Management and Conservation Office of Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve.
Wildlife protection has dominated Wang’s life for nearly 17 years. Due to his familiarity with the living habits of the elephants, on May 27 Wang was invited to join an Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve expert panel by the Yunnan Provincial Forestry and Grass Bureau to assist the local government in monitoring and following the wild elephants. In the course of his work，he was touched by the people's enthusiasm for the giant mammals. Locals came out to see the animals, but people also traveled from other Chinese provinces to take a closer look. After 19 days of intense monitoring work, Wang and his colleagues completed their job. One expert remained and kept following the elephants; the others returned to Xishuangbanna.
"This elephant family is known as ‘short-nosed’ because their noses are shorter than those of other elephants. There are 16 elephants. They lived in the Mengyang area of Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, where my colleagues and I often saw them at the Wild Elephant Valley monitoring point. The most notable feature of the family is that they’re active, but gentle and non-aggressive. The baby elephants in the herd are naughty and cute. They started migrating in March last year. At first, they just moved around Pu'er area, then they went north in April this year, passing through Shiping and now arriving at Yuxi,” Wang said excitedly to IfengTravel.
Chinese authorities deployed drones and mobilized hundreds of people to help monitor the herd's movements and prevent the elephants from causing trouble, Newsweek reported on June 21.
In order to stop the elephants from entering heavily-populated areas, Wang and his colleagues arranged for several trucks to place nearly two tonnes of food along the herd’s expected route every day. Elephants love to eat green corn, pineapples and bananas, but initially they rejected their favorite foods. But Wang and his colleagues persevered. "Maybe the elephants felt our kindness, and a few days later they started eating the food and moving northwest and southwest, far away from the city,” he said. A wave of relief washed over Wang.
The owners of the rainforest
For the short-nosed family, home is the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in Yunnan, located on the southwestern border of China. It is the largest tropical primitive forest area in China, and is composed of five sub-reserves —Mengyang, Menglun, Mengla, Shangyong, and Mangao – with a total area of about 242,500 hectares, covering 12.68% of the entire prefecture. There are extremely rich biological resources and the largest number of wild Asian elephants in China. Thanks to conservation projects, the wild Asian elephant population has been sheltered. The wandering short-nosed family comes from Mengyang, which is the largest sub-reserve, covering an area of about 100,000 hectares.
Wang Bin, 41, wearing a dark green uniform, sits in his office in Mengyang Town, searching for the latest news about the elephant herd on his computer.
"The first time I saw an Asian elephant I was still in high school. I visited Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant Valley and saw the behemoths for the first time. They walked slowly, with elegance and power. Sometimes their roar was low, sometimes high. I was immediately fascinated by them!"
For Wang, born in Zhaotong city, the seed of a dream was planted. He decided he would return someday.
He chose to study animal conservation at university, and after graduation he was assigned to Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve. His dream became reality.
Since starting work at Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve Management Bureau in 2004, daily field patrols and monitoring have been Wang’s favorite duties. He has monitored the activities of elephants in the wild many times and already has a lifetime of stories to tell.
Most areas of the reserve are made up of uninhabited and dangerous jungle. Wang and his colleagues sometimes stay in the wild for several days, eating dry food and sleeping in tents. There are many dangers lurking outside their canvas covers, from elephants, black bears and boars to snakes and huge wasps.
“Poisonous insects like leeches and mosquitoes are very common to us. A colleague was once attacked by a black bear while patrolling in the wild, causing serious injuries to his butt. Fortunately, with the help of other observers and rangers, he got away and received treatment,” Wang Bin recalled.
It was in 2005 that Wang had his first close encounter with wild Asian elephants. During a routine patrol in Shangyong sub-reserve, he and six observers entered some dense woods. As they approached the river, a scream came from the nearby bushes. Wang panicked. He looked back and saw that the guide from the Hani tribe had already run into the river. Only then did he realize what had happened, and he hurried into the water.
"What we learned was that it was a roar from a female elephant who had just experienced dystocia and lost her baby. The sound was filled with anger and sadness, and came from only 10 meters away. I can't describe to you what I felt at that moment, I just remember that it was like an earthquake. I had no time to think and ran instinctively until I reached the other side of the river. My heart was beating violently." Wang and his colleagues returned to the scene a week later, to find the remains of a decomposed baby elephant. The experience gave Wang a deeper understanding of wild Asian elephants. He realized they have similar emotions to humans, feeling a sense of loss after the death of their loved ones. They are the owners of the rainforest. Wang still remembers and abides by a piece of advice given to him by a veteran of forest protection: people must respect nature and wildlife.
After that incident, Wang and his colleagues closely monitored the activities of Asian elephants in the wild. They carefully recorded the time and place of each spotting, took pictures of the herd, and also assisted scientific institutions with research.
When Wang saw a small baby elephant lying with its mother during their lunch break, he felt deeply moved. "Elephant moms often take their babies to forage and play in the woods. After the meal, kids will bathe in the river and play with each other. They are just as cute as children.”
Wang regards the elephant as a magical creature, full of human touch and spirituality, not only boasting a good memory, but also able to express gratitude to the humans who help them. In the wild, he and his colleagues once found an elephant trapped in a water storage pit which had been dug by villagers. Someone hurriedly sent an excavator to flatten the edge of the pit, and, finally, the animal was rescued. But the wild elephant did not run away immediately. It turned back and pushed its head against the big shovel of the excavator, seemingly saying thank you.
Another rescue operation impressed Wang Bin. It was in Mengla on the China-Laos border in 2007. A wild elephant named “Pingping", whose butt was wounded during a fight, was dying. A rescue team consisting of police, elephant experts and doctors had to anaesthetize Pingping in order to transport him to a rescue center in Wild Elephant Valley. To ease pressure on Pingping’s heart during the deep sleep, Wang Bin and his colleagues woke the elephant at regular intervals. It was the first time Wang had come into physical contact with a wild elephant. When touching the boy’s rough skin, he felt a slow and firm heartbeat. Looking straight into his large eyes when they occasionally opened, Wang felt a connection. To his delight, Pingping quickly recovered after undergoing an operation.
Villagers living in harmony with elephants
On top of his daily patrols, Wang Bin is also tasked with advocating for wildlife conservation in the reserve’s villages. Every year, in order to enhance awareness of wildlife protection and danger among local villagers, he and his colleagues go to every village to conduct safety education, distribute safety manuals to the villagers, and cooperate with environmental groups to carry out safety popularization courses in local schools. "Since there are many villages in the reserve, the activities of wild elephants affect the daily lives of the villagers, and sometimes cause unexpected incidents and property damage. The villagers have lived there for a long time. Their feelings for the animals swing between love and fear. Wild elephants often trample villagers’ crop fields as they look for food, and so some migrant workers will come to see them – but this has led to many accidental injuries."
An elephant can run at about 40 kilometers an hour to humans’ 25 kilometers per hour. There’s almost no chance of defeating an elephant in a race. Wang Bin once received a call from villagers asking for help. When he arrived, he found that an elephant was tossing a shattered motorcycle around like a toy. The quivering driver had hidden in a highway culvert. Wang helped him into his car, only to see the angry elephant stomping towards them. He had to reverse quickly down the narrow trail to break free from the furious animal. Recalling that moment of drama, his heart still thumps.
Elephants are very smart; Wang once saw one climbing over a two-meter-high railing. He believes elephants should not be driven away or provoked, and face-to-face clashes must be absolutely avoided.
When elephants appear around a village, they activate an infrared alarm system. The village’s electronic warning signs are displayed immediately, and a broadcast immediately reminds everyone not to go out. Elephants that frequently cause accidents are anesthetized and sent to the elephant rescue center, which has a warning effect on smart elephants.
In order to reduce human-elephant conflicts, Wang and his colleagues carry out habitat transformation and restoration work. “We transformed the farmland of some of the villagers who had moved out into a food source for elephants, planting corn, bamboo, plantains and other crops that elephants love to eat. At present, our elephant canteen base construction project has achieved some positive results. Elephants regularly come to the base for food, and that reduces intrusions into inhabited areas."
From 170 to 300
As the flagship species in the tropical rainforest, the wild Asian elephant has irreplaceable significance for the natural environment and human beings.
Elephants are known as "engineers in the rain forest." The elephant road formed during their migration is a vital passage for other animals in the forest, their dung brings fertilizer to the plants, and their huge footprints become a paradise for insects and plankton.
Thanks to the efforts of Wang Bin and his colleagues, incidents of human-elephant conflict in the reserve have been significantly reduced, poaching no longer occurs, and the population safety of wild Asian elephants has been guaranteed. In addition, elephants have no natural enemies, which means the population of wild Asian elephants continues to increase. According to Wang Bin’s observations and statistics, there are currently about 70-90 wild Asian elephants living in the Mengyang sub-reserve, and the number of wild Asian elephants in China has increased from over 170 in the early 1980s to more than 300 today.
Wang Bin believes the migrating Asian elephant herd may have left its familiar habitat and wandered to places humans live because of improvements in the tropical rainforest ecological environment in Xishuangbanna over recent years.
Forest coverage in the reserve has increased from 88% in the 1980s to more than 95% now, simplifying the original forest ecosystem composed of tall trees, shrubs, and grasslands. The area is almost entirely occupied by tall trees, so there is less easy-to-reach grass to eat. With the rise in the population of Asian elephants, the demand for food is also increasing. Sometimes they must leave the dense forest to seek nourishment.
"My feelings for Asian elephants are complicated. It is our duty to protect them, so we feel relieved to see them living well. If we find that an elephant has died, even if it is an elderly elephant, we will be very sad. But if elephants cause human deaths or suffering, it is very painful." Wang Bin said.
A few years ago, one of Wang’s colleagues was killed by an elephant. In this land, human beings and elephants have long fought for living space. Such a predicament causes all the people working in the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve to consider a dilemma. "People need to survive,” he said, “but so do elephants."
Wang Bin hopes that the government will continue to support the conservation of wild Asian elephant. Establishing a conservation-themed national park and coordinating all resources that can be deployed in the reserve to restore the habitat of Asian elephants are important options. A comprehensive protection area will eventually be formed, allowing Asian elephants to obtain sufficient food and adequate living space. At the same time, the government could work to develop wildlife-themed sightseeing tours, encouraging more people to participate in environmental protection and public welfare, benefiting local people financially, eventually achieving ecological and harmonious development. According to a National Geographic article, ”the current efforts – food baiting and fencing – are all short-term. For many, however, the real question is how to create a sustainable long-term solution for the elephants."
The good news is that the elephant herd is already on its way home. The journey isn’t going entirely smoothly, but Wang Bin is still very optimistic about their future. He believes that the elephants will return to their home in the reserve one day.
Just before going to press, a male elephant that strayed away from the wandering herd was anaesthetized and sent back to his forest home in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve，southwest China's Yunnan Province, local authorities said.
A: Bao Mingwei, an elephant vet from Asia Elephant Breeding and Rescue Center of Yunnan in China
Q: If the elephants migrating northward are fed all the way, will they get diabetes? Won’t they become dependent?
A: At present, the foraging behavior of these migrating wild elephants is considered normal. The main source of food comes from wild growing plants that they instinctively search for, while artificial foraging, which is used to guide them to mountain forests, only accounts for a small part. Their daily food intake also contains a lot of sugar, so they will not get sick from feeding.
Q: Might the elephants get homesick, like people?
A: Elephants have very good memories. Since they are more familiar with the environment of the tropical rainforest and there are familiar elephant herds in their hometowns – not all elephants have migrated out – they should definitely miss companions and their homes over time. This is similar to our human emotions.
Q: The images of elephants napping in the wild really excite people. Do elephants take a nap every day? How long do they need to sleep a day?
A: Elephants are large and spend most of their time searching for food. Therefore, elephants may only sleep for a few hours a day. However, once there are baby elephants in the herd, break time will be greatly increased, because the little guys like to be lazy, especially at noon, they will sleep more. Due to their large size, elephants usually lie down on one side after a while to prevent pressure on the heart.
Q: If elephants arrive in an unfamiliar place, how do they adapt to the new environment? When will they go home?
A: For the elephant family, this trip to the north was very difficult. Fortunately, the temperature in Yunnan is now mild, so they are still comfortable in the new environment. Their daily foraging won't be much affected, but the surrounding areas are unfamiliar. As long as there are forests for hiding, elephants can continue to migrate, and they may not return until the temperature gets colder later this year. However, everything is still uncertain, so we need further monitoring and observation. We hope that the elephants can safely return to Xishuangbanna, where the climate and rainforest are most suitable for them to live for a long time.
Q: How do elephants express sadness or anger?
A: When elephants are angry, they yell like a human, make a very loud noise, use their nose to break the branches of nearby trees, and prick up their ears. If they encounter other people and animals, they take up an attacking posture, scratch the soil with their big feet, pretend to sprint, and pace back and forth.
Q: How do elephants behave when they are happy?
A: When they are happy, the sound they make is gentle, full of magnetism and charisma, their ears naturally swing back and forth like a fan, their body movements are slow and steady, and they might interact with the body of a nearby elephant with their nose.
Q: Who's in charge in an elephant family?
A: Elephants live in a matrilineal society, so an adult female elephant, just like a grandmother, mother or sister in our human family, makes the decisions. The matriarch of the family usually trails behind, she represents leadership and safety.
Q: Why do adult male elephants leave the group to live alone?
A: In an elephant family, since the mother has the final say, male elephants usually choose to leave their group when they reach adulthood, seek other herds to interact with, and find mates. This can prevent inbreeding, and promotes gene communication between populations.
Q: It is said that elephants are foodies. How much food can they eat in a day? What is their favorite food?
A: An adult wild Asian elephant eats about 8% of its body weight every day, so a three-tonne adult elephant needs about 240 kilograms of food in a single day. Gramineous plants are their favorites, such as grasses, corn, sugar cane, reed, plantain, and bamboo. Elephants eat more than 400 plant species, and there are more than 100 other foods that they can eat.
Q: Elephants look powerful, but do they have anything to fear?
A: Elephants are the largest animals on land, so there are basically no predators in the forest that can threaten them. There is a saying that elephants are afraid of bees, that baby elephants are terrified about sounds made by bees at first, but they are highly intelligent, equivalent to a 5 or 6-year-old child, so they are not be afraid after getting used to the buzzing.
Q: How do male elephants court female elephants?
A: Male elephants’ ears secrete a hormonal liquid, which emits a pungent odor to attract the attention of female elephants. This odor is unpleasant and can be smelled from a few kilometers away. The males will become very irritable and fight with each other, even actively using their noses to sniff the genitals of females. If the females happen to be in heat, they will smell each other's body, making them more intimate, and mate smoothly.
Q: Does a baby elephant act like a spoiled baby with its mother?
A: Baby elephants are generally naughty. They have many different types of behavior, such as making cheerful calls, spraying water on other elephants when playing, and crawling on top of their mothers or holding their mother’s legs, putting their head under their mother’s body or playing with its own nose.
Q: How many babies will a female elephant give birth to in her lifetime?
A: A female elephant can live to 60 years old in the wild. They can give birth to five or six babies in their lifetime. The gestation period is 18-22 months, and baby elephants will drink milk until 4 years old. Female gives birth to a baby elephant at an average interval of five years.
Q: How about the memory of the elephant? Are there any interesting examples?
A: Elephants generally have excellent memories. They tend to remember the places they have been and the road they have traveled, even the rangers who helped them. Once, a wild elephant was injured in a fight and a passing ranger treated its wound. After that，every time the elephant saw the ranger, it slowly approached, showing a docile pose. They can also quickly understand human gestures and some languages. Sometimes when we examine for them, we ask them to lift their feet and open their mouths, and they quickly understand.