Maybe they’re looking for better food. Maybe they’ve gotten lost. Maybe they’re just adventurous and having a good time.
No one is quite sure. But for some reason, a herd of 15 Asian elephants has been lumbering its way across China for more than a year, traveling more than 300 miles through villages, forest patches — and, as of 9:55 p.m. on Wednesday, the edges of the city of Kunming, population 8.5 million.
Since setting out in spring last year from Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, on China’s far southwestern border with Laos, the elephants have trotted down the middle of a narrow county street, past a shuttered car dealership and gawking residents. They have gotten into stores of grains left over from fermentation, leading to reports of at least one drunken elephant. They have devoured truckloads of corn and pineapples left out by government officials in an effort to divert them to less populated areas — and then continued on their way.
It’s the farthest-known movement of elephants in China, according to experts. Where they’ll go next, no one knows. When they’ll stop? Also unclear.
“It makes me think of the movie ‘Nomadland,’” said Becky Shu Chen, a consultant for the Zoological Society of London who has studied elephant-human interactions.
What is certain is that they have captivated Chinese social media, jolted local officials and caused more than $1.1 million of damage. They have also left elephant researchers scratching their heads.
Experts are urging the public to temper its delight with awareness of the ecological significance, in a country where avid enthusiasm for conservation has not necessarily coincided with a reckoning of what it will mean to live alongside more elephants.
“This is part of the deal,” said Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, a principal investigator at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, who specializes in elephants. “We want to conserve elephants and tigers. But we don’t have 10,000 square kilometers to put these elephants and tigers and say, ‘Be happy there, don’t worry.’”
The journey appears to have begun last March, when 16 elephants were seen moving from the nature reserve northward toward the city of Pu’er, in southern Yunnan Province, according to state media.
But movement is normal for elephants, which have large “home ranges” over which they travel searching for food or mates, said Dr. Campos-Arceiz. So it was not until relatively recently that researchers and government officials began to notice just how far this herd had wandered. In April, the elephants were spotted around Yuanjiang County, about 230 miles north of the nature reserve.
By then, a few elephants had turned around, while others had been born, according to officials. The group now consists of 15 animals.
It’s not clear what spurred the elephants to leave their home. But after conservation efforts, China’s elephant population has grown in recent years, from fewer than 200 several decades ago to around 300 today, according to official statistics. (Researchers say actual numbers are unclear.) At the same time, deforestation has reduced their habitat.
The elephants’ growing proximity to humans — and their strictly protected status — has emboldened the animals, according to Dr. Campos-Arceiz. And, they’re smart: As they began breaching the boundaries of nature reserves and crossing into more populated areas, they discovered that crops were more appealing than their usual forest fare.
“Elephants learned there is so much food, it’s so nutritious, it’s so easy to harvest and it’s safe,” Dr. Campos-Arceiz said. “This means that elephants have been going back to places where they had been absent for a long time.”
As a result, it’s unsurprising to see elephants wandering beyond their usual habitats, he said, and the phenomenon is likely to continue as their population continues to grow. (In fact, Dr. Campos-Arceiz rescheduled an interview Wednesday night because he was in the Xishuangbanna gardens in the dark, trailing another elephant herd that had meandered about 40 miles from its home range.)
Still, that doesn’t explain the long-distance movement of the “northbound wild elephant herd,” as the other herd has come to be known on social media.
“No idea,” Dr. Campos-Arceiz said of why the group had yet to settle in one spot. “Don’t trust anyone who gives you a very clear response.”
The absence of clarity has not at all dampened the public’s enjoyment of the animals’ long march. Social media users have cooed over videos of an older elephant rescuing a calf that fell into a gutter. They have suggested that if the elephants hurry, they will arrive in Beijing in time for the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary next month. Even Xinhua, the state news agency, has jokingly referred to the herd as a “tour group.”
On Thursday, the hashtag “northbound wild elephants’ buffet site” trended on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, after residents in a village near Kunming prepared cartloads of corn stalks for them.
While acknowledging the public’s amusement, the government has warned people to stay away from the animals, reminding them that they can be dangerous. The wandering herd has yet to cause any injuries to humans, but there were more than 50 casualties involving Asian elephants between 2011 and 2019, according to state media.
Local officials have scrambled to draw up “Elephant Accident and Prevention Emergency Plans.” They have been tracking the elephants’ movements by drone and dispatched hundreds of workers to evacuate residents, set up emergency barriers and reserve 18 tons of food.
But there is still no long-term plan.
In an ideal situation, said Ms. Chen from the Zoological Society of London, the elephants would return on their own to Xishuangbanna. But there is no guarantee: In India in the early 2000s, dozens of elephants wandered to a human-inhabited river island, and despite efforts to push them to unpopulated areas, are still roaming nearby today as a “homeless herd.”
The best-case outcome, Ms. Chen said, would be for the attention that the herd has drawn to raise more awareness around the possibility of human-elephant conflict, which is likely to increase. Only by preparing people for that reality, she said, would conservation efforts really succeed.
“What we have to learn is not how to solve the problem, but how to increase tolerance,” she said. “How can we use this event to let everybody pay attention to the issue of coexistence between people and animals?”
Joy Dong contributed research