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Walking with Yunnan's Wild Elephants

Guo Yanli, 26, a graduate student with the Beijing Normal University's Life Sciences Institute, has had a lifelong fascination with elephants. In September 2003, she discussed the possibility of conducting field research with her tutor. However, there were major obstacles that she first had to clear to even get started. First of all, it is uncommon in China for women to take on field research, particularly solo projects. Further, little has been done to date in terms of wild Asian elephant research in China. As a result, Guo realized that she had not very much prior information to start with. But, there was a silver lining. Guo got to know about a joint Asian elephant research project between the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Xishuangbanna Wildlife Reserve and the Beijing Normal University's Life Sciences Institute, Guo’s alma mater. The project had only just been launched and Guo grabbed the opportunity to be one of its pilot participants. Her sponsors agreed on her choice of conducting on-site research in Wild Elephant Valley, located in the Mengyang Nature Reserve in Yunnan Province.


Wild Elephant Valley is over 100 kilometers away from Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province. Many have braved the arduous journey to the Valley in the hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive wild Asian elephant. Unfortunately for most, the animal remains something only to be read about in nature magazines.



When she arrived in the Valley, Guo took the time to familiarize herself with what was to be her home for the next 12 months. After some careful thought and consideration, she decided on a tree-house situated on land belonging to the Holiday Village resort. She knew that it would be the perfect spot from which to observe the magnificent beasts. Refusing her offer to pay rental on the tree-house, the owner of the resort said: “Harsh living conditions here and the loneliness will get to you. My guess is you’ll run back to the city in less than a month.”


Guo accepted the challenge.


Surviving loneliness


Guo realized in no time that living conditions in the Valley are indeed very harsh, not least of all because she lives in a tree-house. Her five-square-meter “home”, built high in the tree, keeps her safe from random attacks by wild elephants, but it is so tiny that it looks like a birds’ nest from a distance.


But, quite apart from the physical hardships of living in a small space in a tree, there is also the loneliness to contend with. With no access to television, the Internet or radio, Guo is literally cut off from the outside world. Needless to say, Guo has no neighbors, and the eerily peaceful and quiet nights in the primeval forest are particularly difficult to bear.


In spite of this, Guo’s indomitable spirit has carried her through and she soon grew accustomed to her new surroundings.


One way of fighting the loneliness is for Guo to call her boyfriend in Beijing every day. In order to save research costs, she had not equipped her laptop with a mobile Internet facility. She therefore has no other choice but to call him using her mobile phone.



Another way in which Guo deals with the loneliness and solitude is speaking with travelers about her pet subject, the wild elephants. She is always happy to answer their questions about the beautiful animals.


But there was one day when Guo, having grown a little weary of reciting the same facts to curious travelers, asked some questions of her own, one of which was: “What’s going on in the outside world?” When she was informed of Saddam Hussein’s capture, she exclaimed: “That’s the biggest piece of news I’ve heard all year! Possibly the only piece of news!”


Walking with elephants


Despite its name, it is rare that people actually get to see wild elephants in Wild Elephant Valley. Sightings, if any, are seasonal. Yet, many continue to trek through the Valley in the hope of a sighting. More often than not, these intrepid travelers leave the Valley disappointed. In this context, Guo was extremely lucky to have actually seen these magnificent beasts shortly after her arrival in the Valley.


September 19, 2003 is a day that is etched in Guo’s memory. It was the day that she first laid eyes on the wild elephants that she had traveled so far to be with. The day was made extra “special” by her “battle” with leeches that left her bleeding along the elephant trail.



In a bid to observe the elephants as much as she can, Guo rarely gets a good night’s sleep; an occupational hazard, so to speak. This is because groups of elephants often make an appearance only after dark, and into the wee hours of the morning. She has become so finely tuned to the elephants and their movements that the slightest sound, such as an elephant stepping into a pool of water under her tree-house, wakes her instantly.


More significant is the fact that the elephants have grown accustomed to having Guo around. They are now familiar with her scent and allow her to get as close to them as eight meters. This familiarity and “bond” with the elephants fill Guo with pride. This is because the recommended distance to keep from a wild elephant is 15 meters.


Guo’s painstaking efforts have paid off. Over the last 12 months, Guo has seen and identified some 110 individuals, witnessed the births of four calves, and observed behavioral patterns relating to, for example, courtship. More important, she has collected critical information on procreation and gestation; information indicating that population growth for the wild Asian elephant of Yunnan is stable for now.



Adjusting to life in the city


Guo will return to Beijing probably in this week, but her homecoming is something that she views with some apprehension. When she last visited Beijing earlier this year during Spring Festival, having taken a short break from her research, she remembers not daring to venture out of her home for the entire month. She said: “Because I had been in the forest for so long, I just couldn’t handle the dust and the pollution and the traffic. I like life in the forest; it’s quiet and clean, and I’m close to nature.”


Guo added: “But I hope that it won’t take me too long to readjust. I hope the city will accept me again.”


(China.org.cn by Zhang Tingting, October 12, 2004)

Haven for Asian Elephant
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