African Reserves

Elephant march in Yunnan sparks debate over human-animal conflict

As the mystery envelops a herd of elephants continuing their unusual journey through southwest China’s Yunnan Province, deviating from the traditional migration route, conservationists believe a series of unresolved issues have could force the defenders to leave their main habitat.

The group left Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in March. He traveled more than 500 kilometers north of the province to reach the city of Kunming, devastating rice paddies and a range of facilities on his giant journey, causing damage worth over a million dollars. .

They are still advancing, forcing the authorities to deploy drones and personnel to ensure the safety of residents.

“Asian elephants are true to their home ranges. Research shows that the only reason a herd of females and calves would stray from home range is that something may have happened in their home range. habitat, ”said Nilanga Jayasinghe, head of wildlife conservation. at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Too many elephants in a limited space

Over the years, massive infrastructure projects, changes in agricultural practices and five fragmented sub-reserves of Mengyang, Mangao, Menglun, Shangyong and Mengla have started to wreak havoc on the growing elephant population in the interior of Xishuangbanna.

Problems began to arise when the level of protection for elephants was raised in 1988. Their population has almost doubled from 170 at that time to 300 individuals today. Their habitat remains fragmented, however.

According to a study published this week, a team of Chinese researchers proposed a series of actions, including connecting the unprotected areas for elephants, Liushun and Simaogang, with Mengyang, a protected area for elephants. They also proposed to connect two elephant protected areas of Mengla and Shangyong.

“Elephant range is expanding now; the rapid development of southern Yunnan raises the question of whether elephants can continue to coexist with humans in the future,” the study warned.

Cramped in limited and disconnected forests, elephants frequently venture out of the forest to plunder human settlements, leading to conflict in the region. The study suggests installing early warning systems and, above all, building corridors to connect fragmented reserves in order to mitigate conflict.

The situation is not limited to China. The elephant habitat has collapsed around the world. It has declined by more than 50 percent for African elephants, and Asian elephants are restricted to 15 percent of their original range, exacerbating human-elephant conflict.

How protected are elephants within forest reserves?

There is no doubt that conservation efforts have doubled the number of elephants in Yunnan. Yet human-animal conflicts continue to escalate, not only in China but also in India, Sri Lanka and other countries, Becky Shu Chen, consultant for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) told CGTN. .

“One of the main causes of these elephants leaving their main habitat is the question of how we develop our forests. Protected forest reserves are designed to protect the forest and biodiversity, but not for the elephants,” said Chen.

A forest reserve increases the tree cover of various species, restricts human activities and helps curb poaching. However, elephants prefer a mix of grassland and thick forest cover and live within two kilometers of humans, Chen said.

A herd of elephants walks along a road in Eshan, Yunan, China on May 27, 2021, in this still image from a video obtained from social media. / Reuters

A herd of elephants walks along a road in Eshan, Yunan, China on May 27, 2021, in this still image from a video obtained from social media. / Reuters

Over the years, habitat shrinkage and the attractiveness of food like rice, sugarcane, and fruits, grown on farmland near forests, has prompted elephants to live closer to human settlements. But with agriculture in most parts of Yunnan shifting to cash crops like rubber, foraging has left these pachyderms bewildered.

A similar change in behavior, like the one that occurred in Yunnan, was reported among a herd of elephants in Assam in 2019, where instead of keeping elephants away from herds outside, the group invited them to join. Ultimately, their size grew to over 125 individuals. The phenomenon still baffles wildlife experts.

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), elephants in Yunnan generally migrate within a radius of 100 kilometers. They also moved between their original habitat and a new region for some time. It also happened before a herd finally decided to reside in a new habitat.

The elephant in the room: animal-human conflict

“However, the recent movement northward at such a far distance is truly unusual. It is possible that the inexperienced leadership of the elephant in charge of migration may have led the family astray., ” said YK Ma, IFAW senior program manager.

Ironically, with the herd raid in various parts of Kunming, which will also host the World Biodiversity Summit (COP-15) later this year, the phenomenon could motivate parties participating in the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD ) to re-examine the question of man. animal conflict raging across the world.

“This conflict is not just about elephants, but is happening all over the world, including in urban areas. acted to ensure that the matter is dealt with forcefully.

“Not easy to move elephants on the march”

As Yunnan’s marching elephants have sparked debate over global conservation policies, uncertainty hangs over how to return the herd to its original habitat.

One possible solution might be to entice them with whatever food they want to head back to the nature reserve, Chen suggested. But many believe that the task will not be so easy to perform. It would be nearly impossible to move the herd, comprising six adult cows, two adult bulls, three sub-adults and three calves in the reserve, IFAW said.

“It is extremely difficult to tranquilize and move such a large herd of elephants together, especially when there is a calf in the herd, which makes them more alert and restless,” Ma said.

(Cover: Wild Asian elephants lie on the ground and rest in the Jinning district of Kunming, Yunnan province, China, June 7, 2021. / Reuters)

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