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Chinese wild elephants seek places to roam as habitat shrinks

The Xishuangbanna elephant population has more than doubled to about 300 in the past 20 years, a sign of success in herd recovery.

Under a bridge in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, a lone female elephant makes a rare appearance in the jungle by the forest edge, ignoring heavy rain and crowds gathering to graze and bathe in the chocolate-colored water.

Qin Ganglin, a security guard at the Wild Elephant Valley in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region, on the border with Laos and Myanmar, said that normally, tourists looking to spot the animals should wait until February or March when the females are looking for a mate.

A wild female elephant grazes under a footbridge at the Wild Elephant Valley in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China, July 6, 2021.

“Now they don’t appear very often and only appear sporadically,” he said. Human interactions with the often elusive elephants have come under scrutiny after a herd of 16 Asian elephants left Xishuangbanna last year. Most of them migrate 500 kilometers north to the suburbs of Yunnan’s capital Kunming, making them the media’s focus.

The way Xishuangbanna protects elephants and natural ecosystems will also resonate with China’s joint efforts to change its relationship with nature, especially after the emergence of COVID-19, causing health risks arising from habitat destruction.

Xishuangbanna’s elephant herd has more than doubled to about 300 in the past 20 years, a sign of success in herd recovery and the ability of the migratory group to seek more space, especially when the land is suitable for they have decreased by 40% over two decades.

China’s National Forestry and Grassland Commission, responsible for protecting habitats, did not respond to a request for comment. Still, state news agency Xinhua this week said: “preparatory work” has already begun establishing a national park in Yunnan to improve conditions for the elephants.

A tourist feeds fruit to a tamed elephant at the Wild Elephant Valley in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China, July 6, 2021. (REUTERS)

Experts say the move is long overdue. “We are trying to return them to their old habitats,” said Zhou Jinfeng, Secretary-General of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), an environmental non-governmental group. “We think the habitat is not big enough and not good enough, and we need to help the elephants find a new place to live. “A biodiversity hotspot, Xishuangbanna has drawn a ‘red line’ to separate humans from vulnerable ecosystems.

But the expansion of monoculture farming, where fields grow only a single crop such as tea and rubber, and the construction of huge transport projects in the region have disrupted the elephants ‘release and roaming routes.

Room to Room

One of the biggest disruptions was the Jinghong Hydropower Plant. CBCGDF’s Zhou said dams and reservoirs had made the Mekong River, which flows through the region, impossible for elephants to cross, further fragmenting their habitats. “During the (environmental impact) assessment, several experts were talking about how the reservoir would prevent elephant migration,” said Zhou. “But these comments were not included in the review. “State power giant Huaneng, which built the factory, did not respond to requests for comment.

Residents of Xishuangbanna told Reuters that sightings of elephants had been steadily decreasing since 2007 when the hydroelectric plant was completed. Zhou Hongbing, who lives on a farm near the dam, said: “They used to wander here when my parents got married. “Since the hydroelectric plant was built, they haven’t been able to cross the river.”

Qin from Wild Elephant Valley said it was “difficult to say” about the impact of the hydroelectric plant on migration routes but said consideration must be given when building the plant. He also noted that tea plantations have eroded parts of the elephant sanctuary.

The widespread planting of rubber throughout the region has also disrupted feeding and roaming habits. Experts also point out that Xishuangbanna’s extensive reforestation efforts have reduced the area of ​​grassland where elephants graze.

Zhou said any new national park would have to connect all of the dismembered elephant’s existing habitats and give the elephants space to roam and food to feed on. “If the number doubles again within the next 50 years, we need a lot of room in Yunnan,” he said.

Wild Elephants with relaxing music

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