Monitored by hundreds of police officers assisted by drones, the massive animals reached Kunming in southern Yunnan province earlier this week after traveling some 300 miles from their native nature reserve, state-owned media reported.
Adam Chang was hired to deliver corn and pineapples to the elephants, which on average stand 11 feet tall and weigh 11,000 lbs.
He said what he saw was amazing.
“I saw them picking apart the corn with their trunks,” he told NBC News over the messaging and social media app WeChat.
“They are just so much more lively than those I saw in the zoo. It almost felt as if they had a holy aura around them,” he said.
While news of their migration has spread across China and gone viral online, with many expressing wonder and fascination, experts warned that this rare journey could indicate the inevitable and damaging consequences of human encroachment on the elephants’ natural habitat.
The herd reached Kunming on June 2, despite efforts from police to lure them back home. The animals took their time crossing what would have been busy thoroughfares, eating and stumbling into irrigation ditches before going to sleep in woods nearby.
After trending on social media in late May, many netizens were awestruck, while some complained about the destruction left in their wake.
Jason Cao, owner of a Yunnan mining company contracted by the government to deliver their feed, said he didn’t think the damage they caused was serious.
“Elephants are holy animals that can bring fortune and peace in Chinese culture, so we are very happy the elephants came,” he said.
Both Chang and Cao declined to offer their given first names because they had not been given permission to speak to the media by local officials and feared retribution. Instead they asked to be identified with their “American” names.
The herd first came to the attention of outsiders in March 2020 when they left their home in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in southwest Yunnan at the border with Myanmar and Laos. A calf was born in November and two elephants split off from the rest in April 2021, according to the state news agency Xinhua.
Officials and experts say they don’t know why the herd is migrating.
According to Tammie Matson, zoologist and research fellow at the University of Rwanda and director of Matson and Ridley Safaris, elephants can travel long distances if there isn’t enough habitat to meet their needs.
“Some may be driven to move away to get access to these resources to avoid competition,” she said.
Xinhua has reported that the Asian elephant population in Yunnan has ballooned from 180 in the 1980s to 300 in 2021. So it is possible that as numbers grew, a subgroup began searching for new habitat, got lost and just kept traveling, according to Nilanga Jayasinghe, manager of the wildlife conservation team at WWF, an international nongovernmental organization that specializes in wildlife preservation.
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Netizens have plenty of theories as to why the elephants are migrating, blaming global warming and deforestation.
Asian elephants inhabit forests and grassland, so deforestation rates in Xishuangbanna, which reached an annual average of 4.1 square miles in 2010, may have contributed to the herd’s migration.
Still, long-distance treks are not unknown for the animals, according to Raman Sukumar, professor of ecology at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, India, with similar migrations having happened in India and Sri Lanka.
These trips can have a negative impact on a herd’s health, he warned.
“I would expect that the stress levels in the elephants would start going up because the elephants are in a totally different kind of terrain,” he said. “It is very densely populated … It’s not so easy for them to navigate through a city.”
For Hannah Mumby, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences, it is important to address the root cause of their departure, otherwise this behavior could be repeated.
The China Central Television News Agency has captured signs of a second herd of elephants attempting to migrate across a river in Xishuangbanna.
In the meantime, those who have seen the elephants say the experience is more than memorable.
“Before this encounter I just felt curious about animals, now I think I would volunteer in animal rights groups to preserve those giant creatures,” Chang said.