Elephants on parade

Roaming herd of pachyderms become a media phenomenon


Time for a rest: Yunnan’s touring elephants take a break

When you’re a livestreamer trying to stand out in China, here’s one way to get noticed: confront a herd of wild elephants.

That’s what several wannabe web celebrities have done in recent weeks after 15 Asian pachyderms came to national attention for wandering some 500 kilometres across the southwestern province of Yunnan.

One of the weirdest examples of chasing clicks came when a livestreamer called Yunnan Toutou positioned himself next to a pile of pineapples intended to divert the herd away from populated areas. But the elephants didn’t think much of the fruit – or the streamer for that matter – so he added drama by smashing one of the pineapples with his foot. He then ate the “the elephant food” himself.

His coarse behaviour generated widespread condemnation and led to the removal of his livestreaming channel.“These methods are too vulgar and have no lower limit,” the China Youth Daily reproached.

The 15 wayward animals – who left their home in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve last March and were mentioned in WiC543 – hit the headlines earlier this month as they strayed into the rural outskirts of provincial capital Kunming.

Since then the country has been transfixed by their progress, with national broadcaster CCTV offering almost daily updates on their location and wellbeing.

Thus far Chinese authorities have taken the view that the herd must be protected at all costs: farmers are being advised to stay away from the animals (even if they invade their fields) and local populations are told to stay indoors or leave the area if the elephants come near.

“The most important thing is to control direct encounters between people and the elephants to avoid casualties,” a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Zoology said in article posted on

Local governments have said they will compensate villagers for damage done to crops or property if their insurance policies don’t pay out. The herd has already run up an elephant-sized bill, doing Rmb6.8 million ($750,840) worth of damage in the outskirts of Yuxi city alone. On top of that there is the rising cost of deploying hundreds of foresters, emergency service workers, truck drivers and drone operators to monitor the herd and attempt to nudge them away from areas of human population.

The herd is also believed to have killed at least two people on its year-long trek. At another point in the journey, the elephants approached an old people’s home, forcing the residents to take cover under their beds as the animals pushed probing trunks through the windows.

Ultimately everyone would like to see the herd turn round and go home because there is no other obvious place for them to live.

But no one is exactly sure how and why they left in the first place: “It’s a bit incomprehensible,” another expert from Yunnan University’s School of Ecology and Environment admitted to The Paper. “One possibility is that the herd leader is inexperienced and lost his way,” he posited.

Another hypothesis is that elephant numbers in the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve grew too large, so this group decided to strike out on its own.

A third is that the elephants have developed a taste for high-sugar foods like fruit and corn and they are simply moving from village to village scrounging for these tasty goodies.

One villager interviewed on CCTV said he watched as the elephants broke down the door to his courtyard and then sucked in their bellies to squeeze through the remaining frame, after which they gorged on her corn supplies.

The elephants also have a penchant for fermented fruit and grain wine – leading some of their group to get drunk on at least one occasion. The first time that this happened two of the original herd made their merry way back to Xishuangbanna.

In November of last year one of the females gave birth and the seven-month old calf is now a clear favourite with the millions of people around the world tuning in to the group’s tour.

Drone images earlier this week showed the herd having a rare lie-down in a forest clearing, with the little one nestling in the middle of the huge elephant pile. Yet despite all the good will towards the animals, they remain a hazard to themselves and others while they stray so far from their designated habitat. Some commentators have called for them to be tranquilised and transported back to Xishuangbanna but experts say there are risks in this approach as each animal would need an individualised dose of sedative – too little and it won’t work, too much and it might kill them.

Perhaps the best hope for getting them back to their park is some lateral thinking – maybe a series of roadside snack stands that guide the touring herd on the long route home.

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