Wild elephants are amazing, even if they try to kill you, I realized in 2004. At the time, I was studying how hunters and loggers disturb mammals living in the Congo Basin in Africa. In this footage, I was near a herd of elephants in the forest, when they suddenly attacked me, running towards me like an angry and uncontrollable bulldozer. To save my life from these angry animals, I ran over my head and saved my life by jumping into a bunch of vines.
I had goosebumps in fear, but there was a different kind of thrill to it too. Many people living in southern China must have felt the same. A herd of 15 Asian elephants, led by adult females, left Zishuangbanna National Nature Reserve near China’s border with Myanmar and Laos last year. They have since traveled some 500 kilometers north and are now approaching the bustling city of Kunming and its 7 million people. No one knows where the elephants are going and why they are going. But two things are clear: the elephants may have struggled to survive in their original habitat, and China’s efforts to save the elephants were clashing with the country’s aggressive investment and global development strategies.
hope for the homeless
I have seen in Africa and South East Asia that hungry wild elephants foraging for food damage crops, trample orchards and can seriously damage orchards. While in China, this giant animal – which can weigh over five tons (over three cars) as an adult – munched on farmers’ crops and everything in between local villages and towns. In fact, it has so far caused over $ 1 million in crop damage. Millions of Chinese citizens are watching this whole trip.
The 24-hour live stream is broadcast on the public television channel CCTV. At first glance, this seems like a scenario that could be very bad for elephants. When humans and this gigantic creature collide, elephants usually lose. But there is still hope for the wandering herd. Asian elephants are a legally protected species in China. Hundreds of drone-assisted police keep watch over these fearless animals, while wildlife officials attempt to drive them out of populated areas. So far, around 3,500 people have been temporarily evacuated to clear the way for the elephants.
large picture missing
Such efforts are laudable but wrong. Because they only highlight the environmental pressures that move elephants, but say nothing about elephant problems in China and beyond. At first, elephants roaming here and there had to give up their natural habitat simply because their home in southern China was destroyed by human development. Even 15 years ago, when I first visited the Zishuangbanna region, the local rainforests were destroyed because the land was cleared for planting exotic rubber trees. As a result, there are only around 300 wild elephants left across China today.
Another reason is that after the domestic ivory trade ban in 2018, despite government efforts to curb it, the illegal ivory trade continues to an alarming extent. This bloody trade is one of the main reasons for elephant poaching in Asia and Africa. Chinese nationals working overseas are widely involved in the smuggling of wildlife, including illegal ivory. Finally, as it stimulates new roads, dams and other major developments, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, which now covers 139 countries around the world, tackles destruction and exploitation. of the natural habitat of elephants and other native wildlife rapidly increasing its effects.
Big trouble due to the destruction of natural habitat
Lessons What can we learn from China’s stray elephants? China’s stray elephants teach us that sustaining nature often requires large areas of habitat. The potential elephant habitat in China is declining sharply and the Zishuangbanna region now totals less than 250,000 hectares. Globally, large species of predatory animals such as elephants and tigers are in dire straits due to the destruction of their natural habitat and human persecution. To maintain these iconic species, we urgently need to preserve the rest of Earth’s great ecosystems.
Bill Lawrence, Australian Emeritus Research Professor and Laureate, James Cook University