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Scientists Are Concerned About Elephants Taking ‘Unusually Long’ Treks in China

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Jun 23, 2021

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Image credit: Xinhua

Scientists have expressed concern over the behavior of a herd of elephants in China that traveled a distance of 500 kilometers over one year — calling their activity “unusual.”

Elephants trekking and slumbering through forests in China recently captivated public interest, with visuals and videos of elephants sleeping and wandering. But wildlife experts are puzzled by these movement patterns, noting there is nothing routine about them. They worry that urbanization and deforestation may have caused a loss of habitat and made resources scarce, prompting the herd to undertake the long voyage. 

The reason is “almost certainly related to the need for resources – food, water, shelter… in most locations where Asian elephants live in the wild, there is an increase in human disturbances leading to habitat fragmentation, loss and resource reduction,” Joshua Plotnik, assistant professor of elephant psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York, told BBC News. But Plotnik maintains that researchers can’t identify the reason for sure.

Scientists unanimously agree that the “trek” in question is not migration, since the herd does not seem to be following a fixed route. 

Normally, elephants are routine-driven and are not known to travel long distances. In the current situation, the elephants were spotted foraging for food in shops, bathing in canals, and napping in forests along the way. 


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Another feature of interest is that three male elephants were a part of this herd. Normally, elephant herds are matriarchal — meaning herds of female elephants usually travel together — and male elephants usually join these herds for mating before leaving again. However, the current population had male as well as female elephants; the males staying on with the herd could be a sign of greater stress, as evidenced by their moving closely together, said Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, professor and principal investigator at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden.

Further, some of the pregnant elephants in the herd gave birth during the journey, which is uncharacteristic of them. “It’s unusual for them to move to new areas when they’re about to give birth – they try to find the safest place they can,” Lisa Olivier, a wildlife conservationist from Game Rangers International, Zambia, told BBC News.

It remains to be seen whether the herd will stop its journey, return to its habitat, or settle down. But the hypothesis that the arduous trip was undertaken in search of new habitat and a steady source of food is in itself concerning.

Elephants are some of the most adaptable animals. Previously, experts have noted that elephants may be changing their social behavior to adapt to landscapes increasingly dominated by humans.

They have been seen to approach agricultural lands for food due to the loss of their own habitats, according to a report by Mongabay. Groupings of all-male elephants were also sighted in South Asia — researchers say that this is to “adopt a high-risk high-gain foraging strategy by venturing into agricultural areas and feeding on nutritious crops,” according to a 2019 study. But these are risky endeavors, leading to the formation of groups previously unseen among elephants. 

Moreover, these new patterns of mobility and socialization are cause for concern from a conservation standpoint, as endangered species of elephants could be at higher risk — for themselves and the human civiliation — if they are forced to adapt to unfamiliar landscapes. 

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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