A Herd of 15 Elephants Is Wandering North Across China—and Nobody Knows Why

Experts are unsure why the group began its journey, which now spans more than 300 miles, or where it will end

herd of asian elephants
An aerial photo taken on June 5, 2021 shows the herd of Asian elephants in the Jinning District of Kunming, a populous city located in southwest China's Yunnan Province. Xinhua via Getty Images

A herd of 15 Asian elephants has been making its way North across China since March 2020, and nobody is quite sure why, reports Vivian Wang for the New York Times.

The herd has covered more than 300 miles since they wandered out of their home in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, located in southwestern China along its border with Laos and Myanmar.

As the elephants have traversed the Chinese countryside, they’ve caused a good bit of mischief in the villages they’ve passed through. According to BBC News, the herd has mowed down around $1 million worth of crops. One report even claims one of the younger members of the group became intoxicated after bolting down a cache of fermented grain.

Authorities in China have tried to keep the roving pachyderms away from populated areas with piles of fruit and vegetables as well as physical barriers, reports John Ruwitch of NPR. Alas, the herd was spotted on the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province and a city home to some eight million people, last Wednesday, according to the Times.

One potential explanation for the elephant exodus is overcrowding in the nature reserve these animals once called home, George Wittemyer, an elephant specialist at Colorado State University and chairman of the scientific board at Save The Elephants, tells NPR. Asian elephants are endangered and only around 300 reside in China, but the population living in the reserves of the Xishuangbanna region has been growing in recent years. Wittemyer says this wayward group might have set out to find a new home where there was less competition for resources.

“We’ve seen elephants expanding their range for decades now, as their populations increase, and they search for more food for the growing herd,” Becky Shu Chen, a conservation scientist at the Zoological Society of London who has studied elephant-human interactions, tells Lily Kuo of the Washington Post.

Other experts wonder if this is an example of a herd being led astray by an inexperienced leader, or if the decision to roam was an almost random choice, according to the Post.

Authorities have instructed residents in and around Kunming and nearby Yuxi to stay inside if the elephants are nearby, avoid disturbing the herd and to make sure no corn or salt is left outside, per BBC News. If the animals can’t be turned back to their former forested home in the south, scientists and land managers may need to make provisions for the elephants to live permanently in the Kunming area.

Chen tells the Times she hopes the situation will raise awareness around the issue of human-elephant conflict and the role of preparing for those conflicts as a key complement of elephant conservation.

“What we have to learn is not how to solve the problem, but how to increase tolerance,” Chen tells the Times. “How can we use this event to let everybody pay attention to the issue of coexistence between people and animals?”