As It Happens

This elephant herd is wandering through China, causing chaos and capturing hearts 

A herd of elephants in southwest China has been on a year-long journey to nowhere, wreaking havoc, capturing hearts and confounding scientists along the way. 

Herd may be looking for food or fleeing habitat loss, elephant expert says

In this photo taken June 4 and released by the Yunnan Forest Fire Brigade, a migrating herd of elephants grazes near Shuanghe Township, Jinning District of Kunming city in southwestern China's Yunnan Province. (Yunnan Forest Fire Brigade/The Associated Press)

A herd of elephants in southwest China has been on a year-long journey to nowhere, wreaking havoc, capturing hearts and confounding scientists along the way. 

The elephants left their home on a wildlife reserve in the southwest Yunnan province more than a year ago, and have since travelled roughly 500 kilometres. 

The creatures have been seen trotting down urban streets, raiding farms for food and water, visiting a car dealership and even showing up at a retirement home, where they poked their trunks into some of the rooms, prompting one elderly man to hide under his bed. They were most recently seen on the outskirts of Kunming, a city of seven million people.

Scientists don't yet know what sparked this unconventional journey, but many have speculated they're trying to find a new home because their traditional one is no longer suitable. 

Habitat loss, human encroachment could be factors

"These elephants are likely trying to find resources that were limited in the location where they came from," Joshua Plotnik, an expert on Asian elephant cognition and behaviour at Hunter College in New York, told As it Happens host Carol Off. 

"Or they were potentially pushed out by increasing human encroachment on their habitat. But we don't know that yet."

In this aerial photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, the elephants walk in E'shan county in southwestern China's Yunnan Province on May 28. (Hu Chao/Xinhua/The Associated Press)

Nilanga Jayasinghe, manager for Asian species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, told Reuters that Asian elephants are usually loyal to their home ranges. But if there have been disturbances, a loss of resources or development, they may move out.

"In this case, we don't really know why they left their home range, but we do know that there has been significant habitat loss due to agriculture and conversion of forests into plantations within that range in the last few decades," Jayasinghe said. 

"What possibly happened here is that in their search for new habitat, they got lost along the way and kept going."

This aerial photo taken on June 7 shows the elephants taking a nap near Xinyang Township. (Yunnan Forest Fire Brigade/The Associated Press )

Local celebrities

The herd began with 16 members, but local officials say two have returned home, and a new baby was born during the journey.

The wandering elephant parade is now composed of six female adults, three male adults, three juveniles and three calves, according to official reports. 

The elephants have become local celebrities — in part because they're being surveilled constantly by a fleet of 14 camera drones and wildlife personnel seeking to minimize any potential human-elephant conflicts. 

Videos and photos of their shenanigans are all over social media, and they have been trending for days on China's Weibo microblogging service, where photos of the group sleeping together attracted 200 million views Monday night.

Chinese officials prepare a drone to monitor a herd of wild Asian elephants in E'shan county on May 29. (Hu Chao/Xinhua/The Associated Press)

"To my knowledge, this is unprecedented," Plotnik said.

"Certainly in terms of the public reaction, that would tell you that this is a unique and novel experience for people. But it also suggests that there's a problem that needs to be solved here and we need to try and figure out why the elephants left in the first place."

Elephants are protected in China, and the government has asked people to stay out of their way and not stare at them or try to scare them off. 

Instead, authorities are using passive means to keep them out of populated areas, including using parked trucks and construction equipment to block roads, or using food drops to lure them away. 

Potential for conflict

"The good news from what I've heard is that local community members, government officials and scientists are working together, which is exceptional, to try to come up with ways to mediate the potential conflict here," Plotnik said.

"But at some point it will become more desperate if the elephants become more aggressive or if they end up causing more damage, then you might see an increase in the intensity of the conflict. And that's when it again becomes more of an immediate problem that needs fixing."

Plotnik says returning the elephants to their original home or encouraging them toward a new location likely won't work unless scientists figure out exactly what caused the elephants to wander and address their needs.

"If you don't identify and then address those issues before you move the elephants, the elephants are just going to leave again and you're going to have this problem recur."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Joshua Plotnik produced by Sarah Jackson. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?