Reserve keeps wandering elephants happy at home


Wild Asian elephants bathe in dust in Wild Elephant Valley in Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture, Yunnan province, on March 15. CHEN XINBO/XINHUA

Two years after a herd of wild Asian elephants attracted global attention by leaving its forest habitat in Southwest China, experts are working hard to ensure the animals stay at home without coming into conflict with people.

In March 2020, the elephants left a forest nature reserve in Yunnan province's Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture and trekked about 500 kilometers northward to Kunming, the provincial capital, arriving in June last year. They have since headed south again, arriving safely back at the nature reserve.

Their epic journey made news around the world and provided researchers with a chance to study human-wildlife conflict.

The reserve's wild elephant population now exceeds 300, and with many experts believing it is inevitable that they will roam beyond its boundaries, steps have been taken to accommodate their movements by planting food, restoring forests and monitoring.

Among the key issues is the tendency of the elephants to wander in search of food, an activity that often takes them into villages beyond the reserve. While the recent high-profile trek covered hundreds of kilometers, shorter trips are common.

The reserve spans 242,500 hectares, over 12 percent of Xishuangbanna's land area. While there are no villages in its core area, some are still scattered around it.

There are no fences to stop elephants from leaving, which means people must pay attention to the environment near the reserve and anticipate how elephants will behave when they arrive at a village, said Chen Fei, director of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration's Asian elephant research center.

Jose Ahimsa Arceiz, an ecologist based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, said, "Elephant conservation requires big protected areas, big national parks as the core area, with a lot of management in their surroundings, because elephants will come out and there will be a lot of conflicts around this."

As the long trek illustrated, experts also have to plan ahead, in case a small journey becomes a long one.

"Elephants have the ability to move over long distances, including in high-human-density places where you never think elephants would be," Arceiz said.

Elephant canteens

Resolving human-elephant conflict has never been easy. Data released by the Yunnan Provincial Forestry and Grassland Administration shows that from 2013 to 2020, over 80 people were killed or injured by wild elephants, with over 250 million yuan ($39.3 million) of direct economic losses caused.

Among the key tools at the forest rangers' disposal is the establishment of food stores in multiple locations, dubbed "elephant canteens", that provide the animals with attractive nourishment. They can be used to keep the elephants in certain locations and help save farmers' crops.

The creation of the canteens was a key feature of the coverage of the big trek, and it is central to managing the animals now they are home.

In recent years, certain practices have been updated, said Guo Xianming, director of the reserve's scientific research institute.

"We used to divide the farmland, with half used for planting and half of the land for the elephants' food," Guo said. "As a matter of fact, both fields would be eaten by the giants in the end."

The villagers living near the reserve reached the same conclusion.

"The elephants have become picky. The food in the canteens was no longer attractive to them, and they now prefer corn over banana trees," said Dai Cunzhuang, a villager in Dahuangba, where encounters with wild elephants are frequent.

The solution, according to Guo, was to change the types of food being provided, favoring more natural options.

"Instead of planting corn and sugar cane, we began to plant edibles that the elephants normally find in the forest, thus reducing the elephants' fondness for farm produce," Guo said.

Rangers also work to ensure the animals have access to nitrate-rich ponds, which can provide them with vital salts, as well as water to play in.

Tracking technology

Another tool in the box is technology that helps track the animals' movements, providing fair warning of any encounters with human populations.

Around 600 infrared cameras and 177 intelligent broadcast systems have been installed around villages that have frequent elephant encounters, and drones are also used to monitor their movements.

Whenever infrared cameras or drones around villages detect elephants approaching, the villagers get messages warning them of the animals' location. They are then able to make room for their arrival. By December, the system had sent over 7,000 warnings to locals.

Much progress has been made on ecological restoration over the past few years, providing elephants with a better natural habitat to live in. However, the increase in suitable habitat has been accompanied by a rise in elephant numbers.

"The population increase of Asian elephants is a success, but they also need more space to live in," Arceiz said.

Yunnan now has 362 nature reserves covering over 14 percent of its land, meaning that nearly every species of wild animal has been placed under some form of protection.

"What comes next should be the ecological restoration of the wildlife corridors for elephants to pass through," said Yang Yongping, head of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden.

To form such a big area, profit-making businesses like rubber plantations have to gradually give way to the original ecosystem. Institutions like the botanical garden have already made some progress by growing tracts of rainforest on former rubber plantations.

"The ultimate aim should be that both humans and elephants can have their own way," Guo said. "And then, in the long run, man can live in harmony with nature."

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