China Uses Drones and Bananas to Guide Wayward Elephants Home

The pleasant sighting of elephants rolling around, enjoying each other's company has some implications for the country's farmers.
Chris Young

A carefully planned operation involving the use of drones, bananas, and widespread cooperation from entire villages in China is allowing a pack of 14 wild elephants to gradually return home as safely as possible, according to a report from AFP.

The pack, which was first spotted moving through villages in March last year, has gained great attention on local state media and on social media due to images of the animals rolling around on fields and seemingly enjoying each others' company while feeding on crops in the Yunnan province of China.

Drone-tracked elephants are a long way from home

The latest reports detail how entire village populations have agreed to go indoors while officials placed bananas and other animal treats at the opposite end of the village in order to coax the elephants to move through the populated area without causing damage.

The elephants' original home was near the Thai border, meaning that they have traveled a great distance since last year. It is the furthest north that China's wild elephants have traveled since records were kept, Yang Xiangyu, a task force leader for the elephant operation, told AFP. They have so far traveled 434 miles (700 kilometers) and have several more hundred to go. Along the way, they have fed on farmland rich with bananas, sugarcane, and dragon fruit.

Drones are actively being used to keep track of the animals, which are capable of traveling 18 miles (30 kilometers) per day. Any time the elephants approach a village, human trackers drive ahead before making loudspeaker announcements and conducting door-to-door checks to ensure locals will shut themselves in, preferably upstairs and out of reach of the elephants. Power supplies are also cut to prevent the elephants from injuring themselves or starting a fire, were they to damage a power line.

Elephants may have wandered north amid food shortages

While state media and social media coverage has largely portrayed the elephants as lovable rogues gradually making a procession through the Yunnan province back home, two of the elephants reportedly trampled a villager to death in March, according to Chen Mingyong, a Yunnan University elephant-behavior expert linked to the elephant operation.

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Reports first emerged of the pack of 14 elephants wandering into a Chinese village in the province of Yunnan last year. At the time, reports stated that the elephants had damaged private property as they searched for food. The story, which initially gained traction as a positive lighthearted story on social media, is sadly likely to be indicative of the effects of deforestation and climate change. Another report last month suggested that the first observed killing of a gorilla by chimpanzees was down to increased competition for scarce food resources caused by climate change.

Scientists aren't completely sure why the elephants have traveled so far north, though they do strongly suggest it could be down to climate change-related food scarcity, or fluctuations in the Earth's electromagnetic field throwing off the elephants' navigational sense. The 14 elephants are expected to start to speed up their journey and reach home in the fall as temperatures start to cool down — an event that will no doubt warm many a heart in China and abroad.

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