Are We Celebrating The Wrong Side Of Conservation?

August 20, 2021 | By Mahima Sharma
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Rogue Herd On The Move! 15 wild elephants move across China! Where are the elephants in China heading?

These are some of the most common headlines we have come across in the past few weeks. In a country as vast as China, home to a population of nearly 300 wild elephants, why is the movement of this herd raising eyebrows for conservationists all across the world?

Author Li Zhang in the research paper titled Current Status of Asian Elephants In China notes that more than 3000 years ago, large populations of Asian elephants still roamed the forests along the Yellow River. The lush green rainforests of South China that boasted of a healthy elephant population now have a scattered population of elephants in Xishuangbanna, Pu’er and Lincang, prefectures with a total number of 178- 193.

Of this recorded population, these 15 elephants have been moving for the past one year in what is believed to be the longest recorded elephant migration in the history of the country. Many videos and photos have emerged of this migration, with the most popular one being of the entire herd comfortably napping in the middle of an agricultural field. Social media was flooded with videos of drones capturing this moving moment when the elephants rested but did we really celebrate the wrong side of conservation?

An aerial image of the elephant herd resting. [Photo (c) National Geographic]

A herd of elephants embarking upon a journey into the unknown, finds itself in the middle of an agricultural field of a farmer, raiding crops as they go. The impending danger of habitat loss looms on Asian elephants as they face increasing conflicts with the humans upon direct interaction. Rapid deforestation and encroachment of forest lands has forced these gentle giants out of their natural habitat in order to forage in fresher lands – this is what is believed to have made this herd of elephants move, too.

The Chinese Government, news agencies and conservation societies have been closely monitoring the movement of the herd. When they passed through the town of Yuxi, the local enforcement authorities issued warnings and urged people to stay in their homes in order to protect both the elephants and themselves. It was heartbreaking to witness the bewildered herd pass cities as people stared in disbelief as to what they have to see – an elephant herd passing cities to find a new home!

The city was put under strict lockdown when the herd was passing. [Photo (c)]

What is more unique in this entire situation is how the people of Yunnan have never witnessed this phenomenon. The authorities sprang into action with necessary physical reinforcement and even bordered the roads and peripheries of highways with tonnes of food to encourage the herd to return to the forest. The intelligent pachyderms picked up on the fruit but continued their journey, forced to migrate to fresher pastures due to a loss of their home.

In their grand migration, this herd has crossed several villages, destroying crops in the huge fields of farmers who looked on helplessly as the younger elephants of the herd rumbled in excitement at the sight of fresh crops. While this is believed to be an absolutely heart-warming moment by onlookers, it is unfortunate that the largest land mammal on Earth has to be on a conquest to find a home that has always been there.

The herd passing through an agricultural field. [Photo (c)]

The movement of this herd has been equally challenging for the local communities when they would cross the villages. The rampant crop raiding led to huge losses, affecting the livelihood of people dependent on it. A male elephant managed to stray away from the herd of elephants, while the herd continued the migration, but was recently captured and returned to his “home” believed to be Xishuangbanna in the southern province of Yunnan. The herd’s movement is said to have originated from the forests of Xishuangbanna, but it is still unclear where the herd will end up, migrating 500 kms from the forest.

The Chinese government has deployed a 300-member team that is dedicatedly tracking this movement. The local communities are being educated on the consequences of feeding wild animals, human-elephant conflict mitigation methods and avoidance behaviour. The videos of the herd’s misadventures are going viral on social media but are a cause of serious concern for local communities.

To avoid direct confrontations with the elephant herd, an early warning alert system has been introduced. This system shows the exact location of the herd along with the most recent capture, allowing authorities to raise alerts in the villages. According to a report by South China Morning Post, this unique system incorporated infrared cameras, drones and radio equipment, but is also done with the support of manpower. Asian elephant observers have been deployed to track the herd and observe their movement, which plays a crucial role in understanding, thus possibly ascertaining, where the elephants are headed.

The team tracking the herd regularly updates the local communities on the exact location. [Photo (c)]

In India, the situation is not very different either, with regular instances of crop raiding and retaliatory killings causing a strain on the co-dependent relationship that the elephants and the communities share. Upon witnessing a wild elephant herd in their backyard, farmers resort to throwing crackers, pelting stones, and even clicking selfies, which does not have the best consequences.

It is important to understand that proper avoidance behaviour needs to be taught to the local communities who depend upon the forest for their livelihood. No member should be allowed to visit the forest at night, under any circumstance. If the situation is dire and it is inevitable to go, there has to be a group of people talking loudly or carrying a light to make the inhabitants of the wild learn of their presence. . An elephant or any other wild animal will never attack you unless they are threatened or provoked; they will avoid you just as much as you should avoid them.

Another video that went viral recently was of  a wild elephant in Thailand that left an elephantine-sized hole in the wall of a house, while foraging for food. The internet and social media had mixed reactions to this moment but it opened the eyes for many conservationists around the world. The loss of habitat and foraging ground is so prominent that an elephant found itself in this situation, thus seriously putting the life of the residents of the house at risk.

This heartbreaking video did several rounds on social media from Thailand. [Photo (c) DailyMail]

Rapid urbanization, deforestation and habitat fragmentation has managed to destroy the natural foraging ground wherein elephants would be free-ranging animals. For an animal that is naturally built to eat 10% of its body weight, such losses force them out of their habitat looking for sustenance in urban settings. At the outset, this results in human-elephant conflict when elephants eventually resort to habitual crop raiding leading to serious crop depredation and huge losses for the farmers. Such incidents also put an imminent threat to the elephant’s life as they may be targeted by poachers or become unsuspecting victims of retaliatory killings.

Crop destruction is a common aftermath of an elephant visiting a field. [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS]

The sensitive situation that the Asian elephants find themselves in, is precisely due to these factors. For a few minutes, these videos are heartwarming but the bigger picture highlights something really grave.

Are the elephants rendered homeless due to anthropogenic pressures?

If their home is destroyed, where will they go?

Will we be able to protect the Asian elephants, after all?

Wildlife SOS runs an active human-elephant conflict mitigation programme in Central India which has played a significant role in human casualties as well as elephant casualties. You can learn more about our efforts on the field here.

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