2022•10•07 Bonn, Germany
From March 2020 to September 2021, a herd of approximately 15 Asian elephants left their home in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve. Along their journey, the herd broke into homes, damaged buildings and infrastructure, and destroyed crops, totaling estimated damage of over $1 million. Their migration was likely linked to a drought that affected the region in March 2020, the same month the herd started their northward voyage.
Due to legal protection of the species, the elephant population in China has increased, from around 100 in the 1970s to about 300 in 2020. At the same time, however, they lost 62 per cent of their habitat in just three decades. This decreases the ability of the remaining forests to support the elephant population, and increases the motivation for elephants to look beyond their habitats for habitable space.
As human settlements and agricultural plantations expand, the home range of elephants increasingly overlaps with villages and farmlands, making the incidence of crop raiding and human-elephant conflict more likely. Asian elephants need to eat around 150 kg of food per day, meaning that an afternoon in a pineapple field for 15 elephants can be financially devastating for farmers.
Model simulations have shown that human-induced global warming doubled the likelihood of regional extreme droughts and heatwaves in China, an assumed factor causing the elephant herd to migrate. Additionally, global demand pressure for rubber encouraged the expansion of rubber plantations, further diminishing and threatening the elephants’ natural habitats.
Elephants and other species need room to move on their own terms. Mosaic landscapes and other land-use practices are preferred over isolated patches of intact forests, as they create corridors between protected areas and recover historical migratory routes interrupted by human activities.
Solutions should consider long-term goals of shared resources and coexistence, leaving enough space for the elephants to live their lives away from human settlements and protecting human lives and livelihoods from potential conflict. Involving local communities in conservation plans is critical to creating viable, comprehensive and sustainable solutions for wildlife conservation and peaceful coexistence of both human and elephant.