A herd of endangered elephants have left the “reservation” and are wandering city to city looking for a place to call home. Sympathetic Chinese officials are allowing them to trample crops and helping them cross freeways.
A family of 15 wild Asian elephants left their tiny home on a nature reserve in South China and have trekked over 300 miles in the past year in search of a bigger one.
They still haven’t found a proper habitat and have trampled over a million dollars worth of crops along the way.
Sympathetic to their plight, authorities are helping them cross roadways and baiting them around densely populated cities with pineapple, corn and sugar cane.
The Chinese government is using drones to track the elephants’ journey, with millions watching the live video coverage streaming online.
The length of the migration is unheard of for Asian elephants, prompting some scientists to believe they left in search of better habitat and are having a hard time finding it.
“For some reason these elephants felt that their traditional home range was no longer suitable… and then they just left to find somewhere else,” said Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, an elephant specialist at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden.
“But they didn’t have a destination in mind. They are just moving around trying to find a place that will work for them.”
The elephants came from Yunnan province, where native forests are rapidly disappearing for rubber and tea plantations, leaving herds stranded on disconnected nature preserves.
Thanks to strict anti-poaching laws and conservation efforts, China’s elephant population has doubled from 150 to 300 in the last 30 years.
But their habitat is still shrinking, down to a third of what it was 30 years ago, said Zhang Li, ecology professor at Beijing Normal University.
“Habitat fragmentation—with hydropower plants and highways blocking old migration paths—makes it difficult to find mates and socialize,” reports Phys.org.
The elephants are also often injured by electric fences built to safeguard farms and villages.
State TV’s live coverage of elephants’ epic migration has included dozens of heartwarming and heart-wrenching scenes including baby elephants napping surrounded by protective adults and plunging head-first into a pool to gulp down water.
It remains unclear whether the elephants will find a large enough swath of forest to settle.
“They need a huge [wild] area to roam around,” Becky Shu Chen of the Zoological Society of London says.
Unfortunately there aren’t many of those left in China.