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China's wandering elephant herd show. Not as ‘lovable’ as it looks.

Screen capture from Xinhua's video.

Fifteen Asian elephants have become China's latest internet celebrities and the most successful ambassadors of the new “lovable” image that the government is trying for. But as conservationists have explained, what looks like a beautiful story is actually a consequence of ever-expanding economic activity.

The elephant herd left its habitat in Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, which is located near the border of Myanmar and Laos in China’s Yunnan province, in mid-April.

Ever since they have been escorted by a dozen drones and police officers. From May, China Central Television (CCTV) has been live-streaming their daily activities.

No one knows where the elephants want to go.

The herd trumped north for more than 500 kilometers until it reached the outskirts of Kunming city on June 6. Then, lured by fruit provided by their escorts, they took a U-turn and began heading south.

Elephant herd's journey in Yunnan province. Screen capture from CCTV's news report.

For the past two weeks, footage of the herd’s meal times, mud baths and afternoon naps has flooded Chinese social media, earning pickups from prominent overseas media.

Lovable China

The elephant story is more than a spontaneous social media craze.

A viral post on Sina pointed out that the live-streaming of the wandering herd has been China’s most successful propaganda coup in recent years:

中国人这样善待动物,还怎么中国威胁论?[…]如果在其他国家,这会发生什么?譬如,在印度,野象进村的事件就经常发生,看到有报道,野象遭到村民放火驱赶,有村民甚至将轮胎烧着扔向野象……但中国真没有。中国人看着大象,就像看着自己的孩子。

对很多外国人来说,正是看着这15头大象,他们才终于知道,以前知道的中国,至少是不全面的 […] 这种变化,在当前西强我弱的国际舆论环境下,可能是1000篇檄文、1万次怒骂,都达不到的效果。[…]

Chinese people’s kindness towards the animals will nullify theories about China’s threat […] What would happen if this had taken place in other countries? Let’s say in India. I have seen reports that villagers would use fire to drive the wild elephants away…China has not done this, Chinese people treat the elephants like their own children. […]

When foreigners look at the 15 elephants, they realise that their perception of China has been biased […] Such changes of perception cannot be achieved via 1,000 strong statements, nor 10,000 verbal confrontations.

The writer concluded that “even elephants know that China is a good country” and that such a story is a perfect answer to Chinese president Xi Jingping’s call for a “lovable” image for China.

On June 2, Xi signaled a shift in the Chinese Communist Party's diplomatic approach when he told senior CCP officials to present an image of a “credible, loveable and respectable China”.

No wonder then, that China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying was among those posting videos of the elephant mud bath on Twitter:

Yet some Weibo users questioned whether the elephant story would be a happy one in the long run:

云南的大象下山,人们不是驱赶大象,还给大象投食投水,疏散村民。实际这种做法是不对的,以后大象习惯了,会经常下山扰乱人们的正常生活与生产,甚至造成人员伤亡。应该对大象进行驱赶,让大象觉得下山是危险的…

As the elephants left the mountain, people were not driving them away but giving them water and food. Villages were evacuated to give way to the herd. Such practice is incorrect. If the elephants get used to this, they will enter villages whenever they like and may cause damages or even fatalities. People should drive the elephants away and let them know it is dangerous for them to leave the mountains…

Wild habitats under threat

At present the elephant herd has ruined more than 842 mu or 560 square kilometers of farmland and RMB 6.8 million yuan economic damages. The Chinese government has promised to shoulder the villagers’ loss, according to a report on the state-affiliated Phoenix Television channel.

Back in 2017, scientists raised the problem of the displacement of natural forests due to the expansion of plantations in forestry regions including Xishuangbanna and Pu’er.

In addition to rubber plantations, the growth of the Pu’er tea industry since 2003 has led to the expansion of commercial forest plantations and an increase in human-elephant conflicts.

Professor Zhang Li, a field biologist who works on Asian elephants, explained that the wandering herd is trying to find a new natural habitat to settle down.

He told the state-owned People’s Daily that in the past two decades, the expansion of commercial forest plantations has reduced Asian elephants’ scattered habitats by 40 percent.

During the same period, the population of this protected species in China has grown from 193 to 300 individuals.

In a Weibo post, Zhang  elaborated:

大象为什么离家出走?光讲政治是解决不了问题的,要尊重科学!首先要肯定保护取得的成效,随着人们保护意识的不断提高亚洲象种群在稳步增长;但是不容忽视的是地方经济快速发展对野生动物栖息地丧失和破碎化造成的严峻现实。绿水青山就是金山银山,健康完整的生态系统才是经济可持续发展的基石……

Why are the elephants running away from their home? Propaganda could not solve the problem and we have to respect science. While we have to note the achievements that we have made in conservation, and that the population of Asian elephants has grown, we can’t neglect the reality that rapid economic development has led to the disappearance and fragmentation of wildlife habits. Green water and mountains are as precious as gold. A healthy ecological system is fundamental to sustainable development…

Zhang stressed that in order to stop elephants wandering into human villages, it is necessary to establish a national park system that strengthens conservation efforts by expanding and connecting the natural forests where wild animals reside.

Many of the responses to Zhang's post focused on what will happen to animals once media interest has died down.

@big_ear_cat on Twitter said:

Finally an expert has provided an explanation about the herd’s northbound journey. Local officials avoided addressing the truth. They either said that the herd had lost their way or that the nature reserve is working so well that the elephants are overpopulated. All the official media outlets have taken an entertainment-first approach. I dare not look at the elephants. They have lost their home. After the public has lost interest watching the herd, what will their fate be? Now that someone has spoken the truth, the authorities probably want the elephants to vanish from the media spotlight.

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