Global Times: Expanding population of wild Asian elephants in Yunnan are living symbols of China’s ecological commitment

BEIJING, May 26, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — Li Shengqian, an elephant ranger, walked through a large area of flattened cornfields. 

He occasionally squatted down and gazed into the distance, inspecting traces left by the wild Asian elephants.

The previous day, all the elephant rangers in Mengla county, Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, had gathered in the county town for a training exercise. As a result, over 40 elephants, seemingly aware of the humans’ absence, descended the mountain and enjoyed a grand feast. 

They slid down muddy slopes, marched through the cornfields, selected a patch of ripe crops, and promptly ate every sweet corn stalk, before rollicking in the salty nitrate pond at the foot of the mountain.

By the time Li and his colleagues received the villagers’ message and arrived, the elephants were already sound asleep deep in the forest. 

A local forestry official told the Global Times that a third-party insurance company would assess the crop damage caused by the elephants and compensate the villagers according to relevant regulations.

Such incidents have become commonplace in Xishuangbanna. Despite this, people do not complain; instead, the concept of protecting elephants has become deeply rooted in their hearts, and they actively engage in conservation efforts. 

The scene in Mengla is a snapshot summing up China’s work to protect wild Asian elephants, reflecting the country’s biodiversity conservation efforts.

In a recent article on the People’s Daily, Huang Runqiu, Minister of Ecology and Environment, stated that in recent years, under the scientific guidance of Xi’s Thought on Ecological Civilization, China has elevated biodiversity conservation to a national priority, continuously strengthening biodiversity mainstreaming, improving the biodiversity governance system, and significantly increasing conservation efforts.

“Biodiversity protection has achieved new results,” he said.

An unexpected journey

In March 2020, a group of Asian elephants left the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve, migrating nearly 500 kilometers north. In April 2021, the elephant herd appeared in Yuanjiang county, drawing public attention.

Experts worried that the herd, already a long distance from suitable habitats, might face survival risks. To ensure the safety of both humans and elephants, Yunnan Province established a command center for real-time monitoring, early warning, and public support.

During this epic elephant expedition, hundreds of thousands of local residents were evacuated, but all displayed great patience and tolerance. Residents and businesses along the route showed remarkable restraint and understanding: when the elephants ate crops, villagers canceled festive celebrations to avoid disturbing the herd, while businesses turned off lights and suspended operations.

The elephants’ fascinating behavior during their northward journey attracted widespread attention. On one farm, the elephants demonstrated their intelligence by using their trunks to turn on a water tap and then queuing to drink. During the journey, when a baby elephant was tired, a drone captured the heartwarming moment of it nestling beside its mother to sleep.

The elephants’ journey captivated the entire country and even the world, turning them into social media stars. “The elephants seem very carefree: the sky is their roof, the earth their bed, and everywhere is home,” netizens commented.

After considerable efforts, the elephants began their southward return in June, successfully crossing the Yuanjiang River in August and returning to their native habitat.

To build public understanding and support, the Yunnan Forestry and Grassland Bureau actively promoted ecological concepts and wildlife protection knowledge, implemented comprehensive measures to prevent Asian elephant incidents, and ensured reasonable compensation. By August 8, 2021, the public liability insurance company had accepted 1,501 claims for losses caused by Asian elephants, with assessed damages totaling 5.125 million yuan ($740,000).

On October 12, 2021, the leaders’ summit of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) was held in Kunming, capital city of Yunnan Province. 

President Xi delivered a keynote speech via video link at the summit: “China has made remarkable progress in building an ecological civilization. The recent story of the northward travel and return of a group of elephants in Yunnan Province in southwestern China shows the vivid results of our endeavor to protect wild animals. China will continue to advance ecological progress, remain committed to implementing the new development philosophy emphasizing innovative, coordinated, green and open development for all, and build a beautiful China.”

According to following reports in May 2023, the star elephants in Yunnan have been in good health since returning south. 

The baby elephants gained weight, and the herd absorbed new members, splitting into two groups in different areas. 

Experts regarded this phenomenon as evidence of the herd’s healthy reproduction.

Walking with elephants 

Due to extensive conservation efforts, China is one of the few places in the world where the number of elephants is increasing. 

The population of wild Asian elephants in China has grown from about 150 in the 1970s and 1980s to over 300 today. In the mid-1990s, Asian elephants were only found in two national nature reserves: Xishuangbanna and Nangunhe. By the end of 2020, their range had expanded to three prefectures, 11 counties, and 55 townships in Yunnan, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

Conservation efforts are comprehensive, with continuous upgrades in monitoring methods and publicity. 

In Dadugang township, Jinghong city, Xishuangbanna, Peng Jinfu, a dedicated Asian elephant ranger, explained to locals the importance of elephant protection, methods, and safety precautions to villagers in the local dialect.

Peng, formerly a forest ranger, became an Asian elephant ranger due to the increasing number of elephants living in Dadugang. He and other rangers received training and learned how to communicate conservation methods to the community.

In Peng’s jurisdiction, there are four to five herds with more than 50 active elephants. He and his partner are often busy. 

Luckily, Peng noted that while they used to rely mainly on manpower and visual observation to monitor elephants, they now integrate technology such as drones and infrared cameras, updating and sharing elephant activity information through WeChat groups, intelligent loudspeakers with infrared cameras, and the online warning app, enhancing patrol and early warning capabilities.

He told the Global Times that he and his teammates would continue to guard their posts, ensuring that elephants and villagers harmoniously coexist.

For ordinary villagers, the government and volunteers promote more “elephant-friendly” production and lifestyle methods to mitigate human-elephant conflicts. 

For example, beekeeping, traditional handicrafts, and tea planting are being promoted to replace activities like rubber planting and mushroom picking, which harm the rainforest ecosystem and increase the likelihood of displacement of elephants.

“These communities not only are on the frontlines of conservation efforts, but also bear great pressure and sacrifices. We hope to help them achieve better development and harmonious coexistence with elephants through the project,” Ma Chenyue, Program Manager from the International Fund for Animal Welfare in China, told the Global Times. 

For the past two decades, Ma’s colleagues have been helping villagers adapt to living with elephants and better protect them through various means. In December 2016, China announced it would end the domestic ivory trade within a year. The nationwide ban on commercial ivory trade took effect on January 1, 2018.

The Kunming commitment

In 2022, as the chair of the COP15, China led the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and a package of supporting policies, charting a new blueprint for global biodiversity governance for the next decade and beyond. The country announced an initial contribution of 1.5 billion yuan to establish the Kunming Biodiversity Fund, effectively boosting global biodiversity conservation confidence. 

Moreover, since 2019, China has become the largest contributor to the core budget of the Convention on Biological Diversity and its protocols and the largest developing country contributor to the Global Environment Facility.

China has also implemented major biodiversity conservation initiatives. The country was the first to propose and implement the ecological conservation redline system, with over 30 percent of its land territory designated as ecological conservation redlines, effectively protecting 90 percent of terrestrial ecosystem types and 74 percent of national key protected wild species.

China also established the first group of five national parks, including Sanjiangyuan and the Giant Panda national parks, selected 49 national park candidates, and established the first national botanical garden.

Comprehensive land greening actions have been put in place, with 52 integrated protection and restoration projects for mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, grasslands, and deserts, covering over 1 billion mu (66.67 million hectares). Forest coverage has increased to over 24 percent, making China the country with the largest and fastest-growing forest resources. Efforts to protect and restore typical marine ecosystems have also been advanced, with mangrove areas increasing to 438,000 mu, making China one of the few countries with a net increase in mangrove areas.

“It is difficult to achieve results alone, but easy to achieve with collective action. China will work hand in hand with the international community, advancing courageously to maintain a fair and reasonable global biodiversity conservation order, promote global biodiversity governance to a new level, and jointly build a beautiful Earth where humans and nature coexist harmoniously,” said Huang Runqiu, Minister of Ecology and Environment.

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