Deep in the lush rain forests that cover the southernmost part of
southwest China's Yunnan Province, bordering Myanmar and Laos, live
the remnants of the country's once abundant population of Asian
According to a report by Professor Zhang Li with Beijing Normal
University, the total population of the Asian elephants in China is
between 200 and 250. Zhang is a member of the Asian Elephant
Specialist Group of the World
The population has climbed considerably since the 1970s, when
elephant numbers dropped to around 150. It has remained stable over
the last 10 years, largely because of a crackdown on poaching, a
forestation efforts and continued conservation work.
the current population, it is estimated that there are 16-18 herds,
or about 170-200 wild elephants roaming the mountain valleys,
forests and grasslands in the Xishuangbanna Prefecture of the
Over the past two years, researchers in Nangunhe National Natural
Reserve of Lincang Prefecture have been tracking the movements of
six herds of 16 females and two bulls.
Meanwhile, a herd of five resident females and three drifting herds
-- a total of 24 elephants -- were reported in Simao
recent times, conservationists from the three prefectures have made
joint efforts to improve the living environment of the endangered
species, listed under state first-level protection.
However, conservationists in each prefecture are also facing their
own unique challenges.
Xishuangbanna: Conflicts with Local Villagers
More than 80 percent of China's wild Asian elephants can be found
in the Xishuangbanna National Natural Reserve, Huang Jianguo,
deputy director of the reserve administration, told China
Founded in 1987, the reserve includes five protected zones and
covers a total area of 247,439 hectares.
Besides Asian elephants, 20,200 people also live in 114 villages
within the jurisdiction of the reserve. Another 144 villages are
distributed around the reserve grounds, home to more than 32,000
"The human-elephant conflict in Xishuangbanna is more serious than
that in the other two prefectures," said Huang.
the past few years, nine people have died and 49 have been injured
by Asian elephants in the area.
"Last year wild elephants killed three people in Xishuangbanna," he
Ten years ago, wild elephants were destroying about 5,000 rubber
trees each year. But as the population has increased, so has the
destruction. In 2001, the elephants wrecked about 365,200 rubber
trees and trampled 7,885,000 kilograms of crop.
The damage cost the region US$2.35 million in economic losses for
About 16,400 families spread through 38 townships have filed
compensation claims with the government over crop and property
damage caused by wild elephants over the years.
"But we raised only 790,000 yuan (US$95,180) for compensation in
2001," Huang said. "That equates to about 1 jiao (US$1.2 cents) for
each kilogram of crop loss."
"So how to resolve the conflict has been the biggest challenge we
have been faced with," he said.
Supported by an international organization, electric fences were
donated to 24 selected pilot communities to prevent wild elephants
from entering the farmlands in Xishuangbanna in 1993.
Results varied from village to village, Huang said.
Success was reported in some villages, but in others, elephants
quickly learned to bypass the electric fencing or remove the fence
Most villages were also plagued by problems with the solar-powered
energizer, resulting from poor maintenance. The lack of success saw
conservationists stop promoting the method.
another bid to prevent crop destruction, the reserve's management
authority once spent US$45,780 digging a 9-kilometer-long and
2-meter-deep ditch surrounding a village in the reserve.
But it was rendered useless after the following year's monsoon
"Now we are thinking about putting more emphasis on helping local
communities develop economically by adjusting their traditional
production structure," he said. "But we are still looking for an
Lincang: Changing Lifestyles of Ethnic Groups
For Li Yongjie, director of the Nature Reserve Management Office of
the Lincang Forestry Bureau, the two major challenges for his
conservation efforts are how to change the reserve's present
condition as "an isolated ecological island" and how to reduce the
threat of the local communities' traditional lifestyles to the
said the only natural habitat of the Asian elephants in Lincang
Prefecture was founded in 1980. It covers an area of only 7,082.5
hectares and is home to six herds of 18-19 wild Asian
The reserve also houses another 12 species of wild animals, also
all under the state's first-level protection, including 3-4 Bengal
tigers and about 15 white-palmed gibbons which only exist in the
reserve in the country.
"Theoretically, just one adult Bengal tiger needs at least 3,000
hectares of land to survive," Li explained. "The reserve is truly
too small for all of the wildlife to thrive."
The situation is made more complex because the reserve is closely
surrounded by villages and farmed lands.
"Many farming areas around the reserve were forests when the
reserve was established," Li said. "So we used them as a buffer
zone for the reserve."
Along with an increase in the local population, the dense forests
have gradually been reclaimed for farming. "So Nangunhe has become
a reserve without a buffer zone, an isolated ecological island," he
said. "It leads to a conflict between the humans and the wildlife
living in the area."
solve the problem and promote the genetic exchange of wild species,
the reserve is planning to expand another 30,000 hectares.
The management authority has also considered helping some 1,000
residents relocate to other villages. At present, 15,000 people
still live in the reserve.
"Because their traditional lifestyle is a major threat to the
reserve," Li explained.
Most of people living inside and around the reserve are the ethnic
Va people. Though they abandoned their tradition of animal hunting
when the reserve was founded, they still practice a farming method
known as slash-and-burn. As a result, the reserve's buffer zone has
Traditionally, the Va people would lay waste to a section of land
for 10 or 12 years after only one year of use, a move designed to
restore vegetation, Li said. "But nowadays the rotation is usually
two to four years."
help the locals give up their old method of farming, the reserve is
planning to raise funds to build 12 irrigation canals with a total
length of 128 kilometers, to help the local communities create more
"With more high-yield paddy fields, we expect the local people will
give up reclaiming more low-yield dry land on the mountains," Li
realize all the plans, Li said, the reserve first needs to improve
the professional quality of its management staff.
"Most of our 42 employees' level of education is junior middle
school," said Li Yongjie who graduated from Yunnan University in
Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province. "So we need more outside
experts to come and help our local staff."
Simao: Expanding Habitat and Ecological Corridors
Unlike the elephants found in Xishuangbanna and Lincang which
usually live in nature reserves, the only herd of five resident
female elephants found in Simao stay in cultivated areas. "Their
conflicts with the local communities are intense too," said Zhang
Li, who is also country director for China of the International Fund for Animal
create an ideal habitat for the herd of elephants, increase the
locals' tolerance of elephant-related damage and alleviate the
ensuing conflicts, IFAW joined forces with Simao Forestry Bureau
and launched a three-year conservation project in July 2000.
With an investment of more than US$175,000 from IFAW, the project
is easing the economic pressure on local farmers caused by elephant
destruction of property and crops by providing "micro-credit"
More than 370 families in seven pilot communities established their
own funding groups by pooling together loans and their own
The loans enable each family to choose an alternative farming
venture, such as cultivating tea or raising stock, to help
alleviate the economic burden of living within the reserve.
Although the destruction by the elephants continues, Zhang said,
many families have been able to recoup losses by shifting their
traditional farming methods. Their tolerance of elephant damage and
environmental awareness have been greatly enhanced.
Although the project is developing into a successful model, the
local forestry bureau and IFAW still have to face a problem that is
restricting the development of the herd.
According to the biologist, the herd of five females including two
adult and three young have not reproduced since they moved to the
areas from Xishuangbanna, only 70 kilometers from Simao, in
"That means they might fail to have a chance to have contact with
the bull elephants," he said. "That also means the ecological
corridor they once used to reach Simao from Xishuangbanna has been
disrupted by human activities."
a result, he said, "we have to restore the ecological corridor and
help the herd multiply in our future work.
"Otherwise, our present work will be rendered meaningless."
Fortunately, management authorities in the three prefectures have
begun working together to ensure the entire population of the
country's wild Asian elephants live better.
According to Cao Yigong, an official with Simao Forestry Bureau,
the management departments of the three prefectures began
cooperating to apply for a fund of 130 million yuan (US$15.7
million) from the State Forestry Bureau to launch a cross-regional
Asian elephant conservation project last year.
Under the project, more than 30 million yuan (US$3.6 million) will
be used to improve capacity building of nature reserves in the
About 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) will be used to develop wild
elephants' habitats and build ecological corridors to connect
fragmented habitats for elephants. A sum of 18 million yuan (US$2.2
million) are expected to be earmarked for community
Last October, the draft plan of the project was examined and
approved by the State Forestry Bureau's expert committee. The three
departments obtained 350,000 yuan (US$42,168) to draft a plan for
the project's inception.
Following this, the representatives of the three departments and
IFAW including Huang Jianguo, Li Yongjie and Zhang Li attended a
meeting held in Simao on January 27.
During the meeting, the three departments decided to conduct a
joint scientific survey to learn more about the present situation
of the wild population of Asian elephants in the country in the
first half of 2003. IFAW offered to invite experts from Beijing and
Kunming to hold training courses about GIS (Geographic Information
System), survey and monitoring for the three prefectures in early
"We really expect the cooperation will finally bring a better
future not only to the country's wild Asian elephants but also to
the local ethnic communities," Zhang Li said.
(China Daily February 28, 2003)