Why did fifteen Asian elephants decide to leave their home in China?

A herd of elephants walk along a road in Eshan, Yunan, China, photo: still from video Eshan County Fang Yuan Car Care Center/ via Reuters
A herd of elephants walk along a road in Eshan, Yunan, China, photo: still from video Eshan County Fang Yuan Car Care Center/ via Reuters

The migrating herd of 15 wild elephants were spotted heading northwest near the central district of Kunming in southwest China’s Yunnan Province on Saturday. Authorities are trying to guide them towards places with less people.

Since April, six female adult elephants, three male adults, three young adults, and three cubs have traveled over 500 kilometers from their home, the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in Yunnan province.

Long rows of trucks blocked roads in southwestern China on Sunday to try and stop 15 wild elephants from entering areas where people live.

“We are here to block the elephants,” a truck driver in a red vehicle told state broadcaster CCTV. “Traffic police officers said they need some trucks. As long as I’m needed, I will stay here.”

Authorities have also mobilized thousands of people to track the herd’s movements with drones and infrared cameras. 

Not enough food
It is not clear exactly why the elephants left their original habitat. Chinese social media users have been captivated by the journey and have widely speculated on possible causes.

One user on the Twitter-like Weibo platform posted a screenshot of several news articles about rainforest destruction in the elephants’ habitat. “I hope officials can give a response,” the user wrote with the screenshots. It received more than 31,000 likes since it was posted Sunday.

 “Normally, animals migrate when there’s not enough to eat,” someone replied. The reply received over 6,000 likes.

What happened at their home?
It’s important to know what happened at their home, Ingo Schmidinger, head of Elephant Husbandry at Four Paws International, told The Animal Reader by mail. They wouldn’t show such movement unless something happened or disturbed them at their home, he added.

Asian elephants primarily inhabit tropical forest habitats. When they walk into villages, they’re usually looking for food, and they only do that if their home doesn’t provide enough food. 

Strange family structure
Schimidinger also mentioned that the “family” structure is odd. “Usually, a family unit of Asian elephants consists of two adult females, one sub-adult female, one juvenile male, one juvenile female and a calf.”

“So for me, it’s quite strange to read about three adult males within the same group. Adult males usually roam around solitary for a specific period and/or form so-called bachelor groups,” he added.

But Schimidinger said that for now, it’s challenging to find an explanation, adding that “we all still have no idea (why the elephants are doing this), and that there is still so much to learn about wild animals.”

The Asian elephant is an endangered species in China.

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