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Experts hail country's efforts to protect wild elephants

By YANG HAN in Hong Kong| China Daily| Updated: June 11, 2021 L M S

Editor's note: As the world watches a herd of wild Asian elephants that has left its habitat, marched north and is wandering in Yunnan province, China Daily will publish a series of stories following the elephants' movements and covering the environment they live in.

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This aerial photo shows the male elephant traveling with the herd before leaving the group. [Photo provided by Yunnan Provincial Forest Fire Brigade]

Wildlife experts have praised China's use of new technology and sympathetic conservation practices to protect a herd of wild elephants marching through Yunnan province.

"China can have a new beginning as it can come up with its own model to deal with the elephant group," said Asian elephant expert Raman Sukumar, an honorary professor with the Center for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science.

With the resources it has, China can find a way to keep the elephants safe, create a new habitat for them or take them home, Sukumar said.

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This aerial photo shows the wild Asian elephant herd taking a nap. [Photo provided by Yunnan Provincial Forest Fire Brigade]

The herd of 15 wild Asian elephants has trekked 500 kilometers after leaving a designated protection zone in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in Yunnan. After a recent stop on the outskirts of Kunming, 14 of them are now roaming in Yuxi, according to authorities monitoring their migration. Initially, there were 17 elephants, including one born during the journey. As of Thursday, three males had broken from the group and are headed in separate directions, China Central Television reported. All the animals are safe and sound.

Local residents and officials have provided them with food and water. Drones and distance-imaging have been used to monitor the herd's movements and hundreds of emergency personnel and vehicles have been mobilized to keep the elephants safe and prevent conflicts with people.

Media coverage of the pachyderms' progress has aroused interest throughout the world, especially in Asian countries such as India, Thailand and Cambodia, which have strong cultural links to the animals. Photos and video clips of their march through towns and forests have been widely posted on social media as well as images of the sympathetic approach taken by wildlife officials and emergency workers to the elephants.

"The authorities are doing their best to use technology and to safeguard these elephants to the best of their ability, which is highly commendable," said Mark Rayan Darmaraj, country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia.

The challenge for authorities is working out what needs to be done next, Darmaraj said. This includes continuing to provide safe passage for the herd, guiding them toward the closest available safe haven and possibly relocating the entire herd back to their Xishuangbanna habitat. "Each of these comes with its own risk, uncertainty, cost and challenges which need to be evaluated further," Darmaraj said.

The elephant herd has already caused more than $1 million worth of damage, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Sukumar, from the Indian Institute of Science, said short-term measures have worked well, but long-term strategies are needed to resolve the situation as "you cannot allow the elephants to go on the streets".

Apart from returning the herd to its home, China could create a second habitat for the elephants, he said.

Sangduen Chailert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation in Thailand, said the reason why elephants choose to walk into public places can be complicated. Intrusions into urban areas have become more prevalent across Asia over the past five years, she added.

"In Thailand, what we found is that sometimes the elephants get lost, the habitat was not safe, or the baby elephant is captured," Sangduen said, adding that a lack of food and water and pregnancy can all be among the reasons.

"It is not safe for them (the elephants) to be in the town," she said. "They don't belong there. They should go back to the wild."

"The exact reason is still unclear," The Straits Times quoted Professor Sun Quanhui of World Animal Protection as saying.

"But it could be that, along with conservation efforts, the population of Asian elephants in the wild has grown and in a bid to find more territory and resources, elephants could be leaving (nature reserves)," he said.

Asian elephants are under the highest level of State protection in China, where they are mostly found in Yunnan. Thanks to enhanced protective efforts, the wild elephant population in the province has grown to about 300, up from 193 in the 1980s.