China’s Runaway Elephants Are Going Home

Following a high-profile journey north, the elephant family is being lured back to their hometown with bananas and corn.
chine elephants yunnan
The elephant family strolls through a village in Yuxi, Yunnan province in June. Photo: Meng Zhubin/City Times/VCG via Getty Images

A herd of elephants is close to returning to its natural habitat after spending nearly four months trekking across southwestern China and making themselves social media stars.

The family of 15 elephants came under the spotlight after they mysteriously embarked on a northbound march from their habitat in southern Yunnan province in April, damaging crops and making surprise visits to village homes along the way.

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After spending more than 110 days trekking through some 800 miles, the elephants are now wrapping up their adventure and returning to a nature reserve, the Yunnan government said on Monday. 

One 10-year-old male elephant that left the group was tranquilized and sent back home in July. But the rest stuck together and continued on. Researchers did not want to use tranquilizer darts on the group to avoid spooking them.

The group of 14 elephants on Sunday crossed the Hong River, which the government said was the biggest obstacle to the animals’ journey home. The elephants were able to walk across the river during its dry season in May, but recent summer rains have revived the torrent, preventing them from crossing back to the southern bank. 

A conservation team surveyed the river’s 47-mile long section in China to find an ideal crossing point for the elephants, local official Yang Yingyong said at a press conference on Monday. They picked a bridge, but the elephant family just would not stick to the route designed for them. 

Conservation workers labored day and night for nearly two weeks to get the elephants onto the bridge. On Monday, the 14 elephants arrived at Yuanjiang county, Yunnan, about 120 miles from their hometown in Xishuangbanna. 

Yunnan elephants

The elephant family crossed the Hong River on Sunday, a key step in their journey back home. Photo: Yunnan Provincial Command Center for the Safety and Monitoring of North Migrating Asian Elephants via AP

No one knows exactly why the elephants decided to move, although experts say the trip is likely spontaneous, prompted by a search for food. Conservation efforts have seen the number of Asian elephants in Yunnan swelling, but their habitat is shrinking due to deforestation caused by human activities.

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Authorities said they deployed more than 25,000 personnel and conducted nearly 1,000 drone operations to monitor the elephants and lead them back to a path home. Some 180 metric tons of food, such as corn and bananas, had been provided to the herd.

More than 150,000 residents had to be temporarily relocated to make way for the elephants. 

An expert with the elephant rescue team, Shen Qingzhong, said elephants were smart enough to remember paths they have taken in the past. As the population of wild elephants continues rising in Yunnan, he said, similar incidents of wandering elephants will likely happen again. 

The elephants’ journey has made headlines at home and abroad, with pictures of them navigating the forests and sleeping in the wild getting shared around the world. 

It has triggered strong public interest in the life of wild elephants. The Yunnan government is planning to publish two books, with exclusive photos, to document the “interesting affairs, embarrassing events and touching moments” in the elephants’ unexpected journey.