First the entire village is shooed indoors, its power supply is cut, and finally bananas and other elephant treats are dumped on the opposite side of town to coax the uninvited guests to pass through.
So goes the routine welcome ceremony for China’s wayward herd of 14 Asian elephants, whose wandering ways have sparked an unusual operation aimed at steering them home across steep, winding and often populated terrain.
The group left its home range far south near the Laos border 16 months ago for a grand food tour across rich farmland bursting with corn, sugarcane, bananas and dragon fruit in southeastern Yunnan Province.
Photo: AFP/Yunnan Forest Brigade
The Chinese public has delighted in the elephants’ antics, including parading down city streets, guzzling grain alcohol and dozing en masse in a field.
However, it is a jumbo task for the three dozen Yunnan Forest Brigade personnel charged with shepherding the elephants safely home — tracking night-moving animals that can disappear into thick forest and trek up to 30km per day.
It is the farthest north that China’s Asian elephants have traveled in recorded times, the task force leader said.
“Before this, we only saw elephants in the zoo or on television,” he said.
Alarmed officials formed the task force in May, as the elephants neared Kunming, the provincial capital.
Using drones to keep tabs on the animals, they sleep out in the subtropical air or in their vehicles.
On a recent morning, team members stood before a large-screen TV in a temporary village headquarters as frontline colleagues beamed back the day’s first images.
As white clouds parted, unmistakably elephantine gray-brown outlines appeared down in a forest clearing near a village, their trunks probing around for a final snack before bedding down during the daytime heat.
They stir again at around dusk, and their trackers move with them.
When they approach a village, loudspeakers and door-to-door checks urge locals to shut themselves in, preferably upstairs, out of reach of the visitors.
Power supplies are cut to prevent the elephants from electrocuting themselves or sparking fires, and vehicles are parked across roads behind the herd or on side routes to keep them moving forward, preferably south.
Once through, their new location is plotted, the weary task force redeploys and the circus resumes the following dusk.
The elephants have dazzled their chaperones with their intelligence.
A mature female leads, always finding the best path toward food and water or the safest point across a stream, Yang said.
They use tree branches gripped in their trunks to help comrades scratch a hard-to-reach itch, swat bugs or seemingly draw designs on the ground.
Mud is employed as sunscreen, they might fashion a crude “sunhat” out of vegetation, and their dexterous trunks can turn on a faucet, open a door, or lift covers off water wells for a drink, Yang said.
There are three juveniles, two born during the odyssey, officials said.
Adult elephants have been seen using their huge bulk to crush down traffic guardrails, so the youngsters can clamber over them.
They have traveled more than 700km, Yang said, and although pointed homeward, still have several hundred more to go.
The smart foodies appear to be slowing, unwilling to rush through the cornucopia ripening around them in the summer sun, Chen said.
However, cool autumn weather is expected to hasten them home, a bittersweet prospect for Yang and his team, who have become attached to the gate-crashers.
“As soon as trackers see the elephants on our monitors, they feel very happy despite the hard work and toil,” he said.
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