China’s nomadic elephants charm fans across the world

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The migrating herd has already travelled 500km from their home in a wildlife reserve in mountainous southwest Yunnan province to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kunming. Picture: Getty Images media_cameraThe migrating herd has already travelled 500km from their home in a wildlife reserve in mountainous southwest Yunnan province to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kunming. Picture: Getty Images


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China’s wandering elephants have become international stars.

The herd’s trek began over a year ago, to date taking them 500 kilometres from their home in a wildlife reserve in the mountainous southwest Yunnan province. 

Social media is full of clips of their various antics, including footage of two calves who slipped into an irrigation* ditch and were helped out by older members of the group.

The elephants have been trending for days in China, with photos of the group sleeping attracting 25,000 posts and 200 million views on June 7 alone.

The 15-member herd has been caught on security footage trotting down urban streets at night and they continue to be filmed constantly from the air by more than a dozen drones. They are also being followed by those hoping to minimise damage and keep both pachyderms* and people out of harm’s way.

CHINA-YUNNAN-ESHAN-WILD ELEPHANT-MIGRATING (CN) media_cameraAn aerial photo shows the herd of wild Asian elephants in Eshan County, Yuxi City, in southwest China’s Yunnan Province. Picture: Getty Images

The elephants have raided farms for food and water, visited a car dealership and even showed up at a retirement home, where they poked their trunks into some of the rooms, prompting one elderly man to hide under his bed. While no animals or people have been hurt, reports put damage to crops at nearly $AUD1,300,0000.

Sixteen animals originally set off from the wildlife reserve, but the Chinese government has said two returned home and a baby was born on the road.

Wild Elephants in China Wreak $1 Million in Damage

The herd currently consists of six female and three male adults, three juveniles and three calves, according to official reports.

What made them start their epic journey to the outskirts* of provincial* capital Kunming is a mystery, although they seem to really like corn, tropical fruit and other crops that are tasty, plentiful and easy to get in the lush tropical region that is already home to about 300 elephants.

Others have suggested the herd’s leader may simply be lost.

Asian elephants stay in their home ranges unless disturbed by changes to the environment, including lost resources, according to Nilanga Jayasinghe, manager for Asian species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.

media_cameraThe elephants to a rest in a forest near Kunming, in China’s southwest Yunnan province. Picture: AFP Photo/China Central Television (CCTV)

‘We don’t really know why they left their home range, but 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 wrote in an email. ‘What possibly happened here is that in their search for new habitat, they got lost along the way and kept going.’

Authorities have been working to avoid negative interactions* and ‘must determine what the best next steps here are and keep human-elephant conflict at bay, Jayasinghe wrote.

media_cameraThe migrating herd of elephants graze near Shuanghe township in the Jinning District of Kunming. Picture: Yunnan Forest Fire Brigade/AP

Elephants are given the top level of protection in China, helping their numbers to rise even as their natural habitat shrinks, and requiring farmers and others to use maximum care when they come across them. Government orders have told people to stay inside, not stare and not use firecrackers or anything else to scare the elephants away.

Parked trucks and construction equipment have been used to block roads and food drops have drawn them away from populated areas.

For now, the herd remains on the outskirts of Kunming, a city of seven million. One male has moved off alone, creating extra excitement — and worry — for those attempting to keep tabs on them.

media_cameraThe migrating herd consists of six female adult elephants, three male adults, three adolescents and three cubs. Picture: Yunnan Forest Fire Brigade/AP

A statement from a command centre set up to monitor the group said on June 7 that the elephants seemed to be resting, while more than 410 police and emergency response personnel, scores of vehicles and 14 drones were deployed* to keep watch over them. Area residents were evacuated, temporary traffic control measures were put in place and two tonnes of elephant food was delivered.

The statement said that silence was also important, ‘to create conditions for guiding the elephant group to migrate west and south’. Asian elephants, the continent’s largest land animal, are declining overall, with less than 50,000 left in the wild. Habitat loss and resulting human-wildlife conflict are their biggest threats, along with poaching and population isolation.


irrigation: water system for soaking or spraying, often for crops pachyderms: very large mammals with thick skin outskirts: outer edge, boundary, fringe provincial: rural, countryside conversion: change, transformation plantations: farm, ranch interaction: exchange, relationship deployed: to be sent, put in place


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    Where did the elephant herd’s trek begin? How many people in China reacted to footage of the sleeping elephants? What is the estimated cost of damage caused by the elephants during their adventure? What might be appealing to the herd about life in Kunming? How many Asian elephants are left in the wild?


1. Ask the Elephants
If you could interview one of the elephants for Kids News, what questions would you ask them? Write at least five questions. Then, write the answers that you think the elephants would give you.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English

2. Extension
Imagine that you are in charge of the operation to keep the elephants safe and to help them to migrate to their habitat. Write a detailed list of what you think should be done to make this happen.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative Thinking

1. Summarise the article
A summary is a brief statement of the main points of something. It does not usually include extra detail or elaborate on the main points.

Use the 5W & H model to help you find the key points of this article. Read the article carefully to locate who and what this article is about, and where, when, why and how this is happening. Once you have located this information in the article, use it to write a paragraph that summarises the article.


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