China's migrating elephant herd may be finally heading home

An elephant herd captivated locals in China and people around the world with its yearlong journey from the wild to urbanized southwest China. The herd that raided farms and even a retirement home for food, appears to finally be headed home.

The elephants left the reserve they resided on more than a year ago for unknown reasons. They roamed more than 300 miles north of the reserve before reaching the outskirts of Kunming, a center for business and tourism. After reaching the perimeter of Kunming, the herd turned south again but traveled far from the reserve.

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Since the herd’s departure, local authorities deployed trucks, workers and drones to monitor the elephants, evacuated roads for them to pass through safely and used food to steer the gigantic animals away from densely populated areas. 

Despite entering populated villages and a close approach to the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming, no animals or humans have been injured during the herd’s adventure.

But, damage done by the elephants to farmland is estimated at 6.8 million yuan ($1.1 million), according to Xinhua. 

On Sunday night, 14 Asian elephants of various ages and sizes were guided across the Yuanjiang river in Yunnan on a path that’s being opened for them to return to the nature reserve where they once lived in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.

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One male that briefly separated from the group was tranquilized and returned to the reserve by officials. 

China elephant herd

A herd of wild elephants strolls through a village in Hongta district on June 2, 2021 in Yuxi, Yunnan Province of China.

But, as of Sunday night, the herd was still in Yuanjiang Country, nearly 125 miles from the reserve. The National Forestry and Grassland Administration said the animals are in a "suitable habitat" after crossing the river.

Asian elephants are among the most highly protected animals in China. Their population has grown to around 300, even while their habitat has shrunk because of expanded farming and urban growth.

A notice issued by the provincial government said the herd's progress was significant and it would continue to work on getting the elephants back in their natural habitat soon.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed to this story.