Ma Mingliang rarely encountered wild elephants growing up in southwestern China after centuries of hunting and deforestation nearly wiped them out. Today, the 42-year-old village chief has barricades his community to keep them out.
A roaming herd of Asian elephants has captivated China for more than a year with a spectacular trek north through farms and cities hundreds of kilometers away from their normal range in Yunnan province.
However, an elephant on the street is now a common sight for residents of the animal territory on the Myanmar-Laos border, where a recovering elephant population is being squeezed into the ever-shrinking habitat., leading to more conflict with people.
Tensions are immediately apparent in Ma’s village in Xishuangbanna, a subtropical province the size of a small country that is home to China’s elephant population.
The neatly arranged homes of the small community, known as Xiangyanqing, climb a gently sloping hillside, dotted with signs promoting “harmony” between humans and elephants and surrounded by a steel fence separating it from the adjacent jungle.
The village of rubber scrapers is entered through a wide, bolted steel gate at night when hunger activates the elephants.
– ‘There is conflict’ –
However, they frequently found their way in, locking the village out until potentially dangerous intruders wandered out, often after raiding the orchards.
“Everything was very harmonious before. But now there is conflict,” Ma said dryly.
Ironically, the successful conservation is partly to blame.
Asian elephants, which span South and Southeast Asia, were nearly exterminated in China, with only about 150 remaining in Xishuangbanna in the 1980s.
Conservationists say the 1988 hunting ban and strict protection of fragmented elephant sanctuaries made the situation difficult.
With no natural enemies, the population has doubled to over 300 and is continuing to grow.
“Compared to when we were kids, there are more baby elephants in the herd now,” Ma said.
Weighing up to four tons, they consume up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of food daily.
Increasingly, filling means a raid on a local farm.
Elephants cause an estimated annual economic loss of 20 million yuan ($3 million).
Zhang Li, a professor of ecology at Beijing Normal University involved in elephant conservation policy, said the devoured crops and damaged homes in Xishuangbanna were the province’s biggest source of insurance claims.
And they killed at least 41 people between 2013 and 2019, Zhang said. Many more people are injured every year.
The attacks, often by protective mothers or volatile lone young males, can resemble macabre crime scenes.
State media reports of recent cases describe victims being trampled by amazingly fast-moving beasts and squashed or strangled by their sturdy trunks, to broken bones, cracked skulls, and disgustingly dismembered bodies.
– Habitat loss –
Communist Party media portray the 14 wandering elephants – now headed home after an 18-month adventure – as lovable symbols of China’s conservation success.
But Chinese scientists say the growing habitat loss is part of the problem.
Authorities had been forced to address safety risks.
Xishuangbanna in 2019 installed a high-tech network covering hundreds of square kilometers that uses static cameras to relay sightings of elephants to a command center, which sends alerts to the community.
The drill: stay indoors, hide upstairs out of reach and don’t go near wild animals or use firecrackers to scare them away, which can make them angry.
Throughout Xishuangbanna, statues and other imagery celebrate its leading inhabitants – while emphasizing giving them a spacious landing.
The villagers are adapting.
For decades, Lu Zhengrong’s hilltop farming settlement grew rice, corn and other staples, but years of elephant attacks prompted a change.
Lu said: “Wild elephants became too troublesome and numerous, so we switched to growing things they don’t eat, like tea or rubber.
However, that is accelerating habitat loss, says ecologist Zhang.
Rising demand for rubber and tea has led plantations to gradually expand into lands traditionally freed by elephants but lacking official state protection, squeezing them into protected but increasingly isolated pockets.
Inevitably, they wander.
– ‘We need balance’ –
Exactly why the 14 wanderers made the mammoth northward remains a mystery.
But Zhang said, “the loss and fragmentation of their habitat may be the root cause”, exacerbated by competition for wild food sources as elephant numbers increase.
Things could get worse as climate change is forecast to further degrade habitat, he added.
China is establishing a new national park system to enhance habitat protection for key species such as pandas and tigers.
A Xishuangbanna elephant national park has been proposed by Chinese scientists, but it faces a major obstacle.
A viable park would require the costly and politically complex task of clearing farmland and resettling hundreds of thousands of residents to link living habitats.
Until then, residents have to live with elephants.
“I can’t say we like it,” Lu said.
“But we need a balance between this animal and humans. We have to protect them.”