From March 2020 to September 2021, a herd of approximately 15 Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) left their home in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve.
No space left for the wandering giants
Their migration was likely linked to a drought that affected the region in March 2020, the same month the herd started their northward migration.
The elephant population in Xishuangbanna has steadily increased in the past century due to its protected status in China, from around 100 elephants in the 1970s to around 300 elephants in 2020. At the same time, the elephants in southern China lost 62 per cent of their habitat in just three decades due to expanding human settlements and rubber or tea plantations, resulting in less than 4 per cent of Xishuangbanna’s area remaining as suitable habitat for elephants.
As protected habitats become increasingly reduced and fragmented, the home range of elephant populations extends into villages and farmlands, increasing the incidence of crop raiding and human-elephant conflict. Asian elephants need to eat around 300 pounds (150 kg) of food per day, meaning that an afternoon in a pineapple field for 15 elephants can be financially devastating for farmers. Along their journey, the migrating herd of elephants broke into homes, damaged buildings and infrastructure, and destroyed crops, totaling estimated damage of 6.8 million yuan (over $1 million).
Due to the diligence and efforts of the officials managing the elephants' path and early warning systems alerting people of the danger, there were no human injuries or casualties. This is often not the case when elephants and humans interact; since 1991, more than 60 people have been killed during encounters with Asian elephants in Xishuangbanna, with 12 deaths recorded in 2019 alone. Elephants are a protected species and therefore not usually killed during a conflict with humans, but they are often subject to electrocution or physical distress as humans try to drive them away.
As human and elephant populations grow, there is increasing stress on the area's resources in terms of food, water and space to live and roam.
As human and elephant populations grow, there is increasing stress on the area's resources in terms of food, water and space to live and roam. The best solutions need to provide better support for both human and elephant communities and consider long-term goals of shared resources and coexistence, leaving enough space for the elephants to live their lives away from human settlements.
Human-wildlife conflicts will increase in number and intensity due to factors including climate change, urbanization and population growth; and a new system of thinking is needed where humans can co-exist with wildlife in safe and mutually beneficial ways.
Unequal distribution of economic opportunities and limited livelihood options
Pressures related to increasing consumptive demands for goods, such as food, energy and industrial materials.
Pursuit of economic or developmental interests with a lack of consideration for impacts on the environment
Gases released into the atmosphere by human activities contribute to increasing global warming and climate change
Landscape change via increasing growth and expansion of cities and neighbourhoods.
A prolonged shortage of water supply, often due to extended periods of insufficient rainfall.
Increasing temperatures in the ocean or atmosphere, for example from climate change.
Public and private structures and systems can be impacted by disasters, from homes and properties to physical assets critical for providing health services, transport, food, water, communications and more.
Reduction of people’s ability to support themselves or their family, both temporarily or permanently, is an impact that is interconnected with many others, including health and food security.
Improve habitat suitability: Human-wildlife encounters can be reduced by improving ecosystem health, expanding natural areas, connecting protected areas and designing spaces for coexistence. Because of their large scale, these measures deliver important cobenefits, such as livelihood options, carbon sequestration, reduction of land degradation and even local employment, which will become more prominent in the long term.
Holistic conservation: Conservation plans that address the needs of both biodiversity and local communities are more effective in defusing human-wildlife conflicts. Based on coexistence rather than isolation, integrating traditional farming into protected natural areas (e.g. in buffer and transition zones) can make elephant habitat larger and safer from confrontation with humans while also meeting villagers' needs and managing land sustainably.
Natural barriers: Using natural elements, such as beehive fences and deterring crops (e.g. onion, garlic, chilies, lemongrass) for elephants, can avoid human-wildlife confrontation. It also supports and diversifies livelihoods, as well as improving food security. For this solution to succeed, environmental education of farmers, technical assistance and transparent compensation schemes are key.