EFEBy Jesús Centeno Beijing

A herd of 15 wild elephants that embarked on a spontaneous odyssey away from its native forest habitat, venturing through towns and villages under the watchful eye of local farmers, continues to enchant internet users, local authorities and wildlife specialists 500 kilometers into the seemingly open-ended trip.

The Asian elephants left the tropical forests of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province, southwest China, at the end of May and headed north for no apparent reason.

The wandering creatures have since trod through a number of populated areas, grazing on crops and resting in woodland. Local authorities tracking the herd have closed roads to facilitate its journey and have used bananas, pineapples and maize to lead the elephants away from more densely populated urban areas.

In recent weeks, local media speculated that the herd had made its way to Yunnan’s provincial capital Kunming, population 6.6 million, but the elephants instead swung southwest and came to rest in neighboring Yuxi, where they remain today.

An errant elephant is said to be 17 kilometers away from the rest of the herd, China’s state CCTV reported.

The herd has remained in Yuxi for the time being, awaiting the return of the solitary explorer, or perhaps simply because the climate is similar to Xishuangbanna, according to scientists cited by CCTV.

State media said the number of Asian elephants in Yunnan province was estimated to be around 300, up from 193 in 1980. Although the animals are afforded the highest level of protection status in China, there are debates that their sudden decision to migrate could be a response to human activity.

Pan Wenjing, deputy head of the forest and oceans unit with Greenpeace East Asia, told Efe that it was hard to know what sparked this sudden migration, but highlighted that habitat loss presented a challenge for elephant conservation in China.

“In recent years, because poaching has gone, the population of elephants has grown,” she said.  “Meanwhile the natural forest coverage in the area decreased due to the expansion of human activities.

“Wild animal movement is not restrained by the boundary of a protected area, especially for animals as big as elephants, their home range will change if their population or environment factors change,” she added.

“So, it is important to protect and restore suitable habitats for elephants in a larger landscape in order to reduce the conflict between animals and human beings.”

The elephants’ odyssey has attracted huge media coverage in China and viral videos of the animals have turned them into global stars.

“The Chinese public has shown great curiosity for this elephant family. They have been stars on social media, local people also showed great tolerance and kindness to them even though they have caused economic losses,” Pan added, referring to damaged crops left in the herd’s wake.

A villager from Yuxi told CCTV that the elephants were welcome in the area.

“We have maize in the mountains and sugar cane and rice in the fields. They can eat what they like and enjoy themselves. They can rest in the woods when they need to,” he said.

This is a positive attitude, according to the Greenpeace expert.

“This is a sign of increasing awareness in wildlife protection and it is a chance for the public to know more about the importance of elephant protection.”EFE