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China trying to help herd of elephants to go home, it’s a lengthy task. Here’s how they are doing it

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The elephant herd dawdling through a field in the southwest of Yunnan province on June 20.
Xinhua via Getty Images
  • China's roving elephant herd is finally being guided home after 16 months of wandering.
  • A taskforce of experts and forestry firefighters are using drones, elephant treats, and scores of vehicles to persuade the animals back to their reserve.
  • The herd still has hundreds of kilometres to go, and the rest of the trip will likely take months.
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China's roaming elephants are finally on the way home after wandering for more than 16 months across the country.

It's been slow going for Chinese authorities trying to usher the 14 pachyderms back to their home reserve near China's border with Thailand. The whole operation is run by almost 40 forestry firefighters, who keep tabs on the herd with drones as the jumbo travelers trundle through thick forests and villages, reported AFP.

When the elephants enter populated areas, the task force cuts the power to prevent the giants from electrocuting themselves or starting fires. They send everyone indoors, then deposit bananas and other food on the other side of town to persuade the elephants to cross, reports the AFP.

Global media started paying attention to the roving herd about a year ago, as the beasts started wreaking havoc through Yunnan's farmlands on a seemingly aimless migration northeast. Chinese media set up livestreams to track their journey, and millions have tuned in to see the animals' travelling antics, which include raiding farms, visiting a car dealership, and napping in fields.

Now that they're headed home, the firefighters painstakingly track the elephants while they sleep, snack, and pilfer their way back southwest. Most nights, the Chinese team sleeps in their vehicles or out in the open air, headquartering in villages sometimes.

The AP reported in June that authorities had deployed 410 emergency and police personnel, 14 drones, and scores of vehicles in their initial effort to monitor the elephants after they were alarmed by the herd approaching the provincial capital of Kunming, a city of around 6.6 million. With fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, the creatures get A-level state protection, according to local media.

Members of the Yunnan Forest Brigade operate a drone used to monitor the elephant herd, taken on July 23.
HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

The wandering behemoths have been on the move for nearly 16 months, and will take at least several more months to get home - elephants typically walk up to 28 kilometres a day, and this herd has hundreds to go before arriving at the reserve.

Experts are still stumped as to why this particular herd left its home in the first place. The group originally consisted of 16 elephants, but two went home, and another was brought to Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve after striking out on his own. Two babies were also born on the journey, officials told AFP.

The Yunnan Forest Brigade watches live footage of the elephants from their headquarters in Daqiao, Yunnan.
HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

These elephants seem to have grown on the task force, despite the grinding journey back to the reserve. The firefighters told AFP stories of how the animals use branches to scratch each others' backs and draw in the dirt, put on mud as a sunscreen, and even create makeshift "sunhats" from plants.

So far, though, the great beasts have destroyed more than around R14.4 million worth of crops. And the animals can be extremely dangerous. The pair that went home on their own trampled a villager to death in March, Chen Mingyong, a Yunnan University expert on the task force, told AFP.

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