Fugitive Elephant Invasion Threatens Southern Chinese City

elephant herd
Getty Images/Thipwan

Government authorities in China’s Yunnan province spotted a herd of 15 wild Asian elephants at a junction located less than 12 miles from the edge of Yunnan’s capital city, Kunming, on Tuesday.

Yunnan government authorities spotted the herd heading north toward Kunming’s Jinning District around 5:30 pm local time on June 1. The officials warned local residents they should prepare to evacuate the area in anticipation of the herd’s “likely” stampede through the capital city.

“Experts at an on-site command center said the herd has a tendency to continue to move northward and is very likely to enter Jinning District,” the state-run China Global Television Network (CGTN) reported.

“The Yunnan Provincial Forestry and Grassland Bureau has issued a reminder to the Kunming municipal government, suggesting it take safety precautions,” CGTN added.

The Yunnan government has been tracking the herd’s movement toward Kunming since April 16 when the wild elephants broke free from a Chinese state-run nature preserve located 350 miles southwest of Kunming in southern Yunnan province.

“Starting from Yunnan’s southernmost prefecture, their original habitat Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, the elephants wandered through the county of Eshan and entered the city of Yuxi, less than 50 kilometers [31 miles] from the provincial capital of Kunming,” the Yunnan Provincial Forestry and Grassland Bureaus said on May 29.

“During the 40-day journey, the elephants damaged 842 mu (56 hectares) [138 acres] of crops and caused severe inconvenience for local people. No injuries or casualties were caused to local residents,” the Chinese state-run Global Times reported on May 30.

Yunnan’s government deployed drones to monitor and capture images of the elephants. The drone’s images show the herd “includes six female adults, three male adults, three sub-adults, and three cubs,” according to the Global Times.

Government authorities in Yunnan set up a command center near Kunming on May 31 to prepare the area for the elephants’ impending arrival.

“On Monday, the command center urgently mobilized more than 360 emergency response and police personnel, dispatched 76 police cars, muck trucks, five excavators and nine drones to prepare for potential human-elephant contact. They’ve also stored 18 tonnes of elephant food,” CGTN reported.

Five members of the elephant herd broke into a villager’s barn while passing through Yuxi over the weekend, according to a video report by CGTN on June 1. One of the elephants broke down the barn’s gate and left a large footprint still clearly visible on the door. The herd broke into the barn of another Yuxi farmer and ate his grain supply, according to the report. The elephants additionally trampled and ate the crops of other farms located nearby.

“In recent years, Asian elephants have increasingly been spotted in areas of human activity, damaging property and even killing villagers,” China’s state-owned Sixth Tone news site reported on May 31. “In 2019 alone, 14 people were killed by elephants in Yunnan,” Sixth Tone noted, citing a report by the Chinese financial news site Caixin.

“Asian elephants mainly travel to seek suitable living areas, as their habitats have become increasingly fragmented due to human activity,” Zhang Li, a professor of ecology at Beijing Normal University told Sixth Tone.

“Appropriate elephant habitats [in China] have decreased by 40 percent in the past 20 years,” according to the ecology professor.

Zhang said his research indicates that a major reason for the habitat reduction is China’s use of previously protected land “for the development of cash crops such as rubber and tea.”

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