A herd of Asian elephants has embarked on a mammoth journey across China over the past year and a bit — but no one’s quite sure why.
Since March 2020, a herd of 15 wild Asian elephants has marched approximately 500 kilometers (310 miles) northwards from their forest home in Yunnan's Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reports. It's unclear where or when the journey will end.
There are around 300 wild elephants in China, mainly in the south of Yunnan province, but this is the furthest any wild elephants have traveled from the region. One male had previously broken free from the herd and is now 12 kilometers (over 7 miles) away in a forest in Anning, meaning the size of the herd has diminished to 14 individuals.
Researchers have described the migration as “unprecedented” in China. It’s speculated that a quest for food and territory is driving their movements, but some believe the herd has become lost on their journey.
“They are in a state of getting lost,” Becky Shu Chen, a conservationist at the Zoological Society of London who studies Asian elephants, told VICE World News. “They also don’t know where they are going. They are just heading toward relatively open areas that have food for them.”
On June 9, the trunked travelers were spotted having a quick nap just outside the city of Yuxi.
The elephants have captured the hearts of many people on Chinese social media, blissfully unaware of their 15 minutes of fame. However, not everyone has welcomed the travelers; the elephants have been raiding local farmlands and even managed to break into a distiller’s store of liquor, causing one of them to reportedly fall behind from the rest of the group due to drunkenly oversleeping. According to Xinhua, the herd has been involved in 412 cases of “wreaking havoc” and damaged 56 hectares of farmland, causing at least 6.8 million yuan ($1.07 million) in damages so far.
Keeping track of this lumbering crew is no small feat. To monitor their movements and guide their migration away from built-up areas, China has deployed roadblocks, 14 aerial drones, 510 people, and over 110 vehicles.
Authorities are also wary that the Asian elephants have the potential to be aggressive towards humans, despite their apparent cuteness. In an attempt to steer the elephants away from major cities, they’ve employed a range of inventive methods.
Last week, a local emergency rescue team placed corn, pineapples, and other elephant-friendly food on the route the wild elephants were taking in a bid to lure them into the deep forest, away from an urban area. The event attracted the attention of a handful of fame-hungry Internet stars and TikTokers who picked up and ate the leftover pineapples, hoping to be noticed on the many cameras live-streaming the migration.
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are considered an endangered species under the IUCN Red List and classified under A-level state protection in China. The population of Asian elephants in China is mostly found in the southwestern province of Yunnan, which shares a border with Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. The population was dramatically reduced by the 1980s, but ongoing conservation efforts have seen their numbers bounce back to approximately 300 individuals.
As this herd of migrating elephants clearly shows, the species continues to be threatened as human infrastructure, urbanization, and development encroaches on their natural habit.