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 elephants.
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 Conservation Union.
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.
Of 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 province.
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 Prefecture.
In 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 Daily.
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 residents.
"The human-elephant conflict in Xishuangbanna is more serious than that in the other two prefectures," said Huang.
In 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 said.
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 2001.
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 poles.
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.
In 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 season.
"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 answer."
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 reserve.
He 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 elephants.
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."
To 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 almost vanished.
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."
To 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 paddy fields.
"With more high-yield paddy fields, we expect the local people will give up reclaiming more low-yield dry land on the mountains," Li explained.
To 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 Welfare (IFAW).
To 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" loans.
More than 370 families in seven pilot communities established their own funding groups by pooling together loans and their own pledges.
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 1996.
"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."
As 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 three prefectures.
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 development.
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 March.
"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)