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The invasion of elephants

15 Chinese Elephants Are on a Long March North. Why, No One Knows:

Maybe they’re looking for better food. Maybe they’ve gotten lost. Maybe they’re just adventurous and having a good time.

No one is quite sure. But for some reason, a herd of 15 Asian elephants has been lumbering its way across China for more than a year, traveling more than 300 miles through villages, forest patches — and, as of 9:55 p.m. on Wednesday, the edges of the city of Kunming, population 8.5 million.

Since setting out in spring last year from Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, on China’s far southwestern border with Laos, the elephants have trotted down the middle of a narrow county street, past a shuttered car dealership and gawking residents. They have gotten into stores of grains left over from fermentation, leading to reports of at least one drunken elephant. They have devoured truckloads of corn and pineapples left out by government officials in an effort to divert them to less populated areas — and then continued on their way.

It’s the farthest-known movement of elephants in China, according to experts. Where they’ll go next, no one knows. When they’ll stop? Also unclear.

Everyone is talking about this piece in The New York Times. I kept thinking about the book The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China. As China urbanizes and shifts away from agriculture I actually wonder if there is going to be a ‘re-wilding of large areas due to reforestation.


15 thoughts on “The invasion of elephants

  1. These migrations are normal for them. But they don’t usually head off that far and head for Kunming. If they get into the heart of Kunming, it is going to be a problem.

    But one thing I will predict for a certainty, before some muppet comes out with some predictable anti-Chinese stuff – no one is going to kill them. So far they are estimated to have done US$1 million worth of damage during their journey, but no one has harmed a hair on them.

    “No one is quite sure.” Yeah they are – local elephant experts say these annual migrations are normal behaviour.

  2. Meanwhile, a second herd of 17 elephants including two born this year has set up camp in the Chinese Academy of Sciences Tropical Botanical Garden in Xishuangbanna for the last 10 days. Xishuangbanna is a Dai autonomous region in the far south of Yunnan.

    The herd passed the garden while migrating, but the water level in the nearby river had risen due to thunderstorms. The herd made several attempts to cross the river, but the water was too deep for the two infants. So now they are waiting it out in the botanical garden, which houses numerous rare plants species. The concern about that is obvious, so the local authorities are trying to figure out routes out for the herd before they eat or trample too many of the rare plants.

  3. Because I was apparently a mediocre contrarian from birth, towards the end of my childhood I shifted to being obsessed with Pleistocene megafauna, from dinosaurs, which seems to otherwise be the norm for kids. Always broke my heart that we lost quite a few interesting creatures, with a lot of indirect historical consequences (e.g. indigenous Americans losing out on a good domestication candidate or two).

    I have always loved elephants in particular, and am sad to not see a more diverse array of these beautiful and intelligent animals roaming around. IIRC there were some much further North in China, into the early Neolithic. Mammoths are closely related enough to modern elephants that it seems unlikely they’d’ve been any less clever. I can’t imagine mastodons (given an estimated 25 million year split from other proboscideans according to a lazy Googling, thus not guaranteeing a total convergence in ability) and the ill-fated giant xenarthrans were the brightest, on the other hand. I wonder if intelligence contributed to the relative longevity of mammoths past that 11 KYA hard cut-off for most other megafauna.

  4. They are going to Wuhan (800 mi NW), where they will destroy the Wuhan Institute of Virology, before returning home.

    Or maybe they are going to Shangdu (a/k/a Xanadu, 1300 mi NxNW) because they love the poem.

    “Kubla Khan” By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
    A stately pleasure-dome decree:
    Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
    Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea.
    So twice five miles of fertile ground
    With walls and towers were girdled round;
    And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
    Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
    And here were forests ancient as the hills,
    Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

    * * *

    Or possibly they are headed for Siberia because they want to participate in the efforts of Russian scientist Sergy Zimov to restore the Mammoth Steppe. 3800 mi NW.

  5. So, predicably enough, some muppet has duly obliged.

    @Otanes – Elephants are known to have been in northern China, at least as far north as Henan Province, but they are thought to have been a now extinct sub-species of the straight tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon namadicus, which might have been the largest ever land mammal. They were previously thought to be an extinct sub-species of the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus rubridens, which did survive in central and southern China up to the 14th Century BCE. I think the jury is still out on whether ‘the Chinese elephant’ was one or both of these, or a separate species of Chinese elephant.

    I got very excited when I found some replicas of antique representations of elephants with straight tusks. Elephants were attested to on Shang oracle bones and in pictographs on Shang bronzes, and in ancient art work, but I can’t determine whether they were references to an extinct sub-species, a unique extinct Chinese species, or to the extant Asian elephant Elephas maximus indicus, which survives in southwestern China. After a concerted effort to stamp out poaching, their numbers doubled between 1994 and 2014, and the evidence from the current migrations suggests that they are still doing well.

    Elephants were used in warfare in southern China, and Chinese chess has pieces representing elephants. I was quite surprised when I began to learn to play the game many years ago; I had no previous idea that the Chinese had used elephants in war.

  6. I’ve followed Chinese coverage of the herd since December because I research the Mojiang mine for DRASTIC. This is the site where the closest relative of Covid was collected after a SARS like outbreak. They passed within 10 miles of it. The angry men who stop journalists with varying explanations 5 miles away actually used them as an excuse when NBC reporters showed up in March.

    Speculation is the leader of the herd is inexperienced and just hopelessly lost. They wandered erratically for a year but two months ago suddenly made a beeline for Kunming. Two separated at this point. Maybe there was an argument over directions 😉 One source claimed the split happened after they got drunk on a large grain alcohol stash found in a village home.

    Bizarrely their current location is in Jinning District where WIV collected SARS 1’s closest relatives. The third site that WIV has repeatedly sampled in Yunnan is only 5 km from the Botanical Garden that another herd just invaded as John Massey mentioned!

  7. No problem, Otanes. We mediocre contrarians need to look out for each other.

  8. Elephants were used in warfare in southern China, and Chinese chess has pieces representing elephants. I was quite surprised when I began to learn to play the game many years ago; I had no previous idea that the Chinese had used elephants in war.

    I always found it amusing that the East Asian version of chess had palace guards (two of them!) for the king and also had a really fun piece in the form of a cannon.

    Meanwhile the most powerful piece in the European version is the queen!

  9. Having been schooled in the European game, when I started to learn Chinese chess I kept getting caught out by my opponents cannon, because he could use them to shoot over the heads of his guys and hit my guys.

  10. BTW, what was the flu season like in HK for the past year?

    With social distancing and masks, the flu season was pretty much absent in my area.

  11. Very mild compared to most years. Masks, social distancing, all of the schools were closed, a lot of people were working from home for parts of the winter, and a lot more people than usual got a flu vaccination at the start of winter, because it went around on social media that getting the flu + Covid-19 at the same time would be really bad news. I’m guessing, but all of that seems logical.

    There was a bit of an outbreak of a respiratory virus among kids when they reopened the schools, which they only did pretty recently after our 4th wave died down – that caused momentary panic until people realised it was just an ordinary flu, not Covid-19, and that’s gone now. It was very mild, but then it was already hot here by May – hottest May on record.

  12. Mr. Massey, are you the one who commented a year or so ago on how Hong Kong was able to bring down the number of flu cases over time with aggressive promotion of masks and other sanitary measures? Or am I confusing you with someone else?

    If yes, do you recall what your data source was?

  13. I don’t think it could have been me, Twinkie. I know of no such data.

    I believe I have commented in the past that in an ‘old normal’ year, when someone was infected with the flu, they would wear a mask when they went out to try to avoid infecting other people. But that was never aggressively promoted, it just happened organically after the 2003 SARS epidemic (which doesn’t actually make much sense because SARS patients were too sick to be walking around in public, but that is when it started happening, and it quickly became a social norm, encouraged by social media I suppose). I guess that must have some effect, but I don’t know of any attempt to quantify it.

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