After an epic 17-month journey that made international headlines, China’s famous herd of wandering elephants appears to finally be heading home.
The 14 Asian elephants of various sizes and ages were guided across the Yuanjiang river in Yunnan on Sunday night and a path was being made for them to return to the nature reserve in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, the Associated Press reported.
As of Sunday night, the herd was still in Yuanjiang County, approximately 200km (125 miles) from the reserve.
The elephants’ return completes a more than 500km odyssey that captivated the country. The highlights of their trip included the birth of a calf in Pu’er in November; causing more than 6.8m yuan ($1.07m) in damage, according to estimates by state broadcaster CGTN; and going viral for taking a nap.
In June, drone footage showed the herd sleeping in a forest outside a village in Xiyang township. When they started moving again, more than 410 emergency personnel, 374 vehicles and 14 drones were deployed with more than two tonnes of elephant food.
The elephants were also monitored and kept away from residential areas by a team of eight people, who tracked them on the ground and by drone for 24 hours a day.
Local wildlife experts have been unable to pinpoint the reason the herd decided to move. But Zhang Li, a professor on mammal conservation at Beijing Normal University, told the state-run Global Times in June that “Large-scale human engineering developments have exacerbated the ‘islanding’ of elephant habitats.”
This meant “the traditional buffer zones between humans and elephants are gradually disappearing, and the chances of elephants’ encountering humans naturally increase greatly,” he said.
The tourists’ behaviour wasn’t welcomed by all, with some locals complaining that the elephants had eaten entire fields of corn and truckloads of pineapples. A car dealer in Eshan county reported in June that six visiting elephants had drunk two tonnes of water in his shop.
Others monitored the news for incidents that might pose a threat to the animals. In July, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that Yunnan authorities had warned locals to avoid poisonous mushrooms growing during the wet season. Soon, the topic “Will elephants eat the poisonous mushrooms” began trending on Weibo, eventually being viewed more than 120m times.
The elephants were also used as state propaganda, starring in an editorial published by the Global Times titled, “China’s care for wandering elephants mirrors adorable national image the West can’t distort.”