By Dan Southerland
A herd of elephants that has been trekking hundreds of miles across southwestern China is drawing global attention.
According to Time magazine, no one is clear why the 15 elephants left their home in a national nature reserve located near China’s border with Laos.
In its August 2-9 edition, Time reports that millions across China—and all around the world—have followed the elephants’ antics through 24-hour-long online images shot by a dozen swarming drones.
Highlights have included a calf trying to clamber out from under a snoozing adult.
In a few cases, farmers living near the elephants’ pathway fed them with grass and other food items.
At one point, an elephant wandered into a farmer’s house, apparently looking for food.
Ironically, the elephants appeared at first to be heading toward the city of Kunming, where the United Nations is set to hold a conference on biodiversity this year.
But then they began turning around and heading back to their nature reserve.
A joke has it that the elephants were heading for Kunming to launch a protest against pollution of their homeland.
And one theory has it that a loss of habitat in the nature reserve resulted from the opening of plantations, including rubber plantations, there.
Josh Plotkin, an expert on elephant psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, told Time that the elephants were indeed likely to have left the nature reserve because of habitat loss and increasing human disturbances, which may have led to the decreasing availability of food and water.
Elephants can eat 440 pounds of food each day.
Growing herds, shrinking habitat
According to a website titled “rememberanimals.com,” a healthy elephant has a life span of 50 to 70 years of age.
Their tusks keep growing for their entire lives.
Elephants have at times proven difficult for humans to deal with.
Time reports that on their journey towards Kunming, the elephants have “pilfered mountains of corn and pineapples, and caused more than $1 million in damage as they amble slowly through farmland and villages.”
China’s wild elephants have doubled in number to more than 300 since the 1990s, according to the Time report.
But their habitat has shrunk by nearly two-thirds over the same period, it says.
China has harsh penalties for those caught killing elephants, but in the future the surviving elephants’ conflict with humans may only rise.
China has in the past been the biggest consumer of ivory products, according to the National Geographic magazine.
But on Dec. 31, 2017, China, the world’s largest ivory market, banned all domestic ivory sales.
China’s ban on ivory
China deserved credit for shutting down the illegal trade in elephant ivory that contributed over the years to the killing of thousands of African pachyderms. But even then, some experts say that illegal trading continued.
John Gruetzner, the managing director of Intercedent, a Toronto-based, Asian-focused advisory group, said the Chinese decision to halt ivory imports was “partly a response to global pressure, including pressure from the United States.”
But, said Gruetzner, the decision also came as a result of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive as well as pushback from African nations whose elephant populations were dwindling.
According to Gruetzner, government indifference in recent years had permitted the carving of elephant ivory that contributed to the killing of some 33,000 African elephants a year.
Driving the demand for ivory in China have been members of a growing Chinese middle class who in the past could never have afforded to purchase carved ivory decorations. This was a luxury that was reserved in past generations for a rich minority.
But international nongovernment organizations have championed the elephants’ cause and raised public awareness of it in China.
On Dec. 31, 2017, China, the world’s largest ivory market, banned all domestic ivory sales.
Peter Knights, the CEO of WildAid, a San Francisco-based group, described China’s ban on ivory as “the greatest single step toward reducing elephant poaching.”
The announcement of the ban led almost immediately to the closing of 172 ivory-carving factories and retail shops in China.
Poaching in Kenya also went down from 390 elephants killed in 2013 to 46 reported last year, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service.
But the smuggling of ivory by international criminal gangs that also smuggle drugs and weapons has made any crackdown a challenging task.
The number of elephants still alive in Asia and Africa is difficult to determine.
Ge Rui, an international animal welfare campaigner, has worked to raise awareness among Chinese of the illegal trade in ivory.
She said that determining the number of surviving elephants is difficult because the forests where the elephants shelter is so dense.
Many elephants live in the jungles of central and western Africa. This makes it hard to study them and examine their numbers.
But Rui said that the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) once found the bodies of some 600 elephants in a supposedly protected area in the central African state of Cameroon.
Public awareness in China of the need to protect endangered wildlife has risen in recent years thanks partly to NGO- sponsored publicity campaigns.
But a survey taken in China by IFAW in 2012 showed that many people in China once believed that ivory came from discarded elephant tusks and that elephants would grow new tusks if they lost their old ones.
According to Time, environmentalists are calling for the Chinese government to set up dedicated elephant nature reserves like the successful ones that China has created for pandas and leopards.
*Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding Executive Editor.