BEIJING – With the number of wild Asian elephants growing, people in a prefecture in Yunnan are trying various methods to reduce confrontations.
Unlike smartphone addicts who spend hours a day on social media, playing games or watching videos, residents of Basan village are using smartphones to save lives and local incomes.
The safety alerts about wild Asian elephants they spread help prevent injuries and economic losses that can be caused by the roaming rainforest giants.
The village, in the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture of southwestern China’s Yunnan province, has witnessed frequent visits by wild Asian elephants in recent years as their numbers have grown. The giant animals, searching for food, sometimes pose a threat to safety.
“Nearly all families in the village had their crops damaged by wild elephants nearby,” said villager Huang Zhaowu. “Some were eaten while other crops were trampled. Nothing is left in the farmland, just like a hurricane has swept through it. To a local family, it means the loss of a whole season’s income.”
Even more annoying, the elephants sometimes break into villagers’ houses at night.
“Some people live in bamboo houses without a steel or wooden door that can be used as a defense,” Huang said. “It’s not funny if you are awoken by a wild elephant. They are capable of killing, very easily.”
The villagers’ options for dealing with the safety threat are limited because the wild Asian elephant is listed as one of China’s top-level protected wild animals due to its limited population－an estimated 300－all living in Yunnan.
Huang said some farmers used to broadcast loud music to drive the elephants away. “It worked in the beginning, but soon became nonthreatening to the elephants,” he said. “Then they stomped on all our sound equipment.”
An elephant alert alliance was later formed voluntarily in the village. Through text messages, phone calls and social media such as WeChat, a report system has been established. Anyone who notices a wild elephant nearby will spread the alert.
“Tourists are eager to see wild elephants, but we want them to stay in their territory and keep away from us,” Huang said.
Rarer than giant pandas
The area inhabited by wild Asian elephants in the province has expanded from seven counties in 2017 to eight this year, according to Chen Mingyong, a life sciences professor at Yunnan University who has been studying the animals for decades.
He said the wild Asian elephant population has grown by two to three animals a year in recent years.
Statistics from the provincial forestry department show the wild elephant population in the province－mostly in Xishuangbanna－has soared from 170 in the 1970s to about 300 now thanks to protection efforts.
That means they are still rarer than giant pandas, but the growing population has resulted in more conflicts between people and elephants.
In 2014, a villager in Basan died after being attacked by a wild elephant searching for food. In 2016, a sexually frustrated bull elephant smashed 19 cars in three days. Five months ago, a 67-year-old tourist from Sichuan suffered broken ribs and a broken right hip bone when he was attacked by a wild elephant in Xishuangbanna.
Statistics from the prefecture’s forestry bureau indicate that more than 85 per cent of the 153,000 confrontations between humans and wild animals in Xishuangbanna between 1991 and 2010 involved wild Asian elephants. A total of 33 people died and 165 were injured in such confrontations.
A lack of food is the root of the problem. Guo Xianming, deputy director of the research institute at Xishuangbanna Natural Reserve, said an adult Asian elephant usually weighs between 3 and 5 metric tons and consumes 150 to 200 kilograms of food a day. The growing population has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in the herds’ demand for food.
The expansion of some invasive plants has made growing conditions more difficult for the elephants’ preferred food, and scientists say decades of rainforest protection efforts are another factor.
“Protection of rainforest resulted in rapid growth of plants, especially those big trees that used to be threatened by excessive tree felling,” said Wang Lifan, director of Xishuangbanna Natural Reserve’s Shangyong section. “The efforts are crucial to the better recovery of rainforest, but might also lead to problems with the wild elephants’ natural food supply.”
The section, covering 31,300 hectares, is the third largest in the natural reserve. Established in the 1980s, it is now home to 70 to 90 wild elephants.
“A number of the elephants’ favourite foods, such as bamboo, plume grass and plantain, are declining dramatically,” Wang said. “They are much shorter than trees and the protection of the rainforest allows trees to grow rapidly and become a shelter, stopping the sun’s rays those shorter plants need.”
‘Canteens’ for wildlife
To ease the tension, the provincial forestry department has built “canteens” in several natural reserves, reducing friction between villagers and wild elephants that had been eating their crops. In recent years, some of the canteens have been expanded.
In Xishuangbanna Natural Reserve’s Mengyang section, the canteen set up in 2008 has since doubled in size to 67 hectares, Guo said.
In the first two months of this year, 12 cameras shot more than 12,000 pictures and nearly 1,300 videos showing wild Asian elephants, sambar deer and boar feeding at the canteen.
“It shows the canteen is welcomed by the elephants,” Guo said. “After we provided the food source, the elephants paid many fewer visits to farmland, and their conflicts with farmers have been eased in recent years.”
However, with investigations conducted by scientists indicating local people sometimes also feed elephants with crops grown in villages, such as corn, Yunnan University professor Chen said he worries the canteens may teach the elephants to want more of it.
“And their affection for this sweet-tasting crop will encourage more elephants to step into humans’ territory,” he said.
Chen said the most practical way to maintain harmony between elephants and humans is to separate human territory from the elephants’ habitat.
With investment of more than 1 million yuan ($159,000), the country’s first protective fence to separate people and wild elephants was built last year in Xiangyanqing village, Xishuangbanna.
The green, steel fence, 2.2 metres high and 800 metres in length, surrounds the village, which used to be visited by elephants about 40 times a year. It has proved to be effective and another fence, 550 metres long, is now under construction in another village in the prefecture.
But Chen is still trying to figure out other methods that could encourage elephants to stay within a certain region, far from the villages.
Through years of observation, he discovered an elephant secret－they usually spend several months a year near a source of salt, which could be a rock or a small pool with a high salt content.
“We could build some artificial salt source far from the village,” he said. “It won’t hurt either villagers or elephants and will encourage the elephants to stay in the deep forest.”
Drones that used to monitor forest fires have also been introduced to the wild elephant alert system since 2016, according to Chang Zongbo, a media officer from Xishuangbanna’s forestry public security office. He said drones are sometimes used around the clock for real-time monitoring of all 18 elephants in Menghai county, using infrared cameras at night, and that sections of road will be cordoned off if elephants are found there.
“The biggest obstacle in solving conflicts between humans and wild elephants is the lack of scientific research funding,” Chen said. Compared with some overseas research projects on big, wild animals that cost millions of dollars, he said scientific research on wild elephants in Yunnan had only received about 2 million yuan in government funding in the past decade.
“Government funds are mainly used as compensation for the losses of farmers during elephant encounters,” he said. “But that can’t solve the problem fundamentally.
“If more funding can be given to research programmes, things will be different. Scientists would figure out effective and natural methods to ease tension by knowing more about this wild, giant species.”