China’s wild elephants seek room to roam as habitats shrink

XISHUANGBANNA, China, July 20 (Reuters) – Under a footbridge in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, a lone female elephant makes a rare appearance in a clearing on the edge of a thick forest, ignoring the strong rains and crowds that gather to graze and bathe in the chocolate-colored water.

Usually, visitors wishing to see the animals must wait until February or March, when the females seek mates, said Qin Ganglin, a protection officer for the Wild Elephant Valley in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna area, on the border with Yunnan. Laos and Myanmar.

“They don’t go out very often right now, and only sporadically,” he said.

The generally elusive human interactions with elephants have been re-examined after a herd of 16 Asian elephants left the Xishuangbanna last year, most of them having migrated 500 km away ( 311 miles) north of the outskirts of Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, turning them into a media sensation. Read more

The way the Xishuangbanna protects its elephants and natural ecosystems will also set the tone for China’s global efforts to change its relationship with nature, especially after the emergence of COVID-19 exposed the health risks resulting from habitat destruction. Read more

Xishuangbanna elephants have more than doubled to around 300 in the past 20 years, a sign of success in rehabilitating herds, and the migrant group was likely looking for more space, especially as the amount of land that suited them has declined by 40% over the past two decades.

China’s National Forestry and Grassland Commission, which is responsible for habitat protection, did not respond to requests for comment, but state-run Xinhua News Agency said this week that “preparatory work “had already started to establish a national park in Yunnan to improve conditions for the elephants.

Experts say the move is long overdue.

“We are trying to bring them back to their old habitats,” said Zhou Jinfeng, secretary general of the China Foundation for Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development (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 one.”

A hotbed of biodiversity, the Xishuangbanna has drawn “red lines” to separate humans from vulnerable ecosystems. But the expansion of monoculture, where fields are dedicated to unique crops like tea and rubber, as well as the construction of giant transport projects in the region, have disrupted elephant grazing and roaming routes.

Tourists give fruit to tame elephants in the Valley of the Wild Elephants in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China, July 6, 2021. REUTERS / Aly Song

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One of the biggest disruptions is the Jinghong hydroelectric power station. Zhou of CBCGDF said the dam and reservoir have made the Mekong River, which flows through the region, impossible for elephants to cross, further fragmenting their habitats.

“During the (environmental impact) assessment, experts talked about how the reservoir would stop elephant migration,” Zhou said. “But those comments were not included in the assessment.”

Electricity giant Huaneng, which built the plant, did not respond to requests for comment.

Residents of Xishuangbanna told Reuters that elephant sightings have declined since 2007 when the hydropower plant was completed.

“They were wandering here when my parents moved home,” said Zhou Hongbing, who lives on a farm near the dam. “Since the hydroelectric power station was built, they haven’t been able to cross the river.

Qin from Wild Elephant Valley said it was “difficult to say” what impact the hydropower plant had on migration routes, but said this had to be taken into account when building the plant.

He also noted that the tea plantations have eroded parts of the elephant protection area. Extensive rubber plantation across the region has also disrupted eating and roaming habits.

Experts also point to the extensive reforestation efforts of Xishuangbanna, which have reduced grasslands where elephants graze.

Zhou said any new national park should connect all existing and fragmented elephant habitats and give the elephants space to roam and food to feed.

“If the numbers double again in the next 50 years, we must have a lot of room in Yunnan,” he said.

Reporting by David Stanway; Edited by Christian Schmollinger

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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