China’s elephants jostle for a little room


The love between man and elephant does not come easily.

Just ask villagers in this tropical swath of southwestern China, where pachyderms gobble up crops, rampage through greenhouses, and have been known to knock laundry off clotheslines.

When angry, elephants can turn deadly. In 2008, a woman was trampled to death in her food kiosk in a tourist park here called Wild Elephant Valley. A few months later at the same park, an elephant critically injured a U.S. tourist trying to take pictures.

In a nearby village in 2001, another apparently camera-shy elephant killed a Chinese television cameraman who was investigating complaints about crop destruction.

Yet there is little doubt who has the upper hand in the competition for Chinese land: There are 1.3 billion humans compared with 300 wild elephants.

With a population smaller than that of the beloved panda, elephants are becoming a focus of China’s nascent animal rights movement. Environmentalists -- with the support of the Chinese government -- are seeking to teach the public to respect, if not actually love, the remaining Chinese elephants.

Money helps. Farming families here are eligible for microcredits of up to $150 to grow tea, which elephants don’t like, rather than corn, under a program by the International Federation for Animal Welfare. The Chinese government and other animal rights advocates have programs that provide compensation to villagers whose crops are eaten or destroyed by elephants. Farmers also have been recruited as wildlife monitors, paid small amounts to file reports on elephants that pass through their villages.

When the carrot fails, the stick applies. Strict laws make it a crime to kill an elephant; in 1995, four people were executed for poaching elephants for their tusks. Since then, no poaching cases have been reported, although elephants wounded by gunshots have wandered across the borders from Myanmar and Laos.

“Nobody would dare shoot an elephant in China today. If they want to do that, they go to Laos,” said Bao Zhantian, manager of the resort at Wild Elephant Valley.

In a village in Mengman township scented by frangipani trees and fields of tea, elephant monitor Ai Zhang, 53, concurs. “The villagers get angry with the elephants, but there is nothing they can do about it. The elephants are protected by the government,” he said, sipping tea on the second-story veranda of a bamboo house with a pointed roof, a traditional style of the Dai ethnic minority.

Ai told of how in 2005 an elephant trampled to death an old man who had been collecting peanuts in the mud. The family received compensation from the government.

Most incidents are more benign. Elephants make periodic incursions into the village lands, especially when the crops ripen in autumn. Ai dutifully fills out the paperwork, noting where they come from, where they go, their gender, color and the shape of their ears.

He professes a great love of the giant mammals.

“Elephants, like peacocks, represent fortune in Dai culture,” he says softly. “Only the chief of the Dai can ride an elephant when he gets married.”

For China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han, elephants do not have the cultural significance of similarly endangered tigers and pandas. Most Chinese have never seen an elephant outside a zoo and many aren’t even aware that wild elephants still live in their country.

To the extent that most Chinese do see elephants, it is at Wild Elephant Valley, which attracts an average of 2,000 visitors daily. Local authorities are trying to set up a breeding center to raise elephants in captivity, an approach used successfully with the panda.

Xishuangbanna, a region wedged up against the border of Myanmar and Laos in southwestern Yunnan province, is booming as a tourist destination for middle-class Chinese seeking to escape the bitter northern winters. It is a low-rent Thailand of sorts, without beaches, and the elephants are a big draw. Many of the gaudy hotels and karaoke parlors lining the main streets of Jinghong, the region’s largest city, display oversized streetside statues of elephants. Environmentalists are hoping that the tourist attractions will at least raise awareness about elephants. China is the largest market in the world for ivory -- most of it smuggled in illegally from Africa. Ivory figurines, jewelry, chopsticks and other trinkets are widely sold in curio markets in southern China.

“Very few Chinese realize that the elephant is killed when his tusks are harvested for ivory,” said Grace Gabriel, Asia director of the animal welfare federation. The federation has been placing advertisements in subway cars in the largest east coast cities showing an elephant and her young male calf with the message, “If you don’t buy, he doesn’t die.”

“We see young mothers taking photographs of the posters and saying to us later, ‘Gee, if I knew I wouldn’t have bought that bracelet,” Gabriel said.

In China, elephants once roamed as far north as what is now Beijing, according to “The Retreat of the Elephants,” published in 2004. The book looks at the elephants’ shrinking presence over 4,000 years as a symbol of China’s subjugation of its environment. Although war, ivory hunting and climate change have all played a role, the destruction of forest lands to make way for the agricultural base of Chinese civilization was key.

China’s last elephants are squeezed into a patchwork of rubber plantations, tea farms, highways and housing tracts, with the relentless pace of development forcing them into ever-smaller spaces. That leads to more confrontations with villagers.

“I see them now more often than I did when I was growing up in the 1950s,” said a chicken farmer who lives in Mengman township. “Back then there was jungle everywhere and they seldom emerged.”

Another problem is that China’s elephants live in three separate pockets of territory that are not contiguous. Environmentalists are working with the Chinese government to set up corridors between the areas, but that involves dedicating land. “I think China is truly trying to protect the elephants, but development always comes first,” Gabriel said.

China’s elephants are in danger of succumbing to the genetic diseases that arise when small populations inbreed.

“I really think that elephants are safer in China than anywhere else in Asia right now,” Luo Aidong, deputy director of the research institute at the Xishuangbanna nature reserve. “But whether this small population of elephants will survive in the long term, I don’t know.”


Liu is an assistant in The Times’ Beijing Bureau.