On July 7 and about 6:20 PM, Wang Lujun, a security officer with the Jinghong Nature Reserve of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, found a young elephant in the Sancha River in the Wild Elephant Valley, trying to free its left hind leg from an iron trap. Its herd stood a mere three meters away.
A rescue operation was eventually launched on July 9. The distressed animal was sedated and its herd distracted to allow rescue workers to approach it. They cut the trap with a steel saw and treated the injured animal's wounds. It was moved to a safe place before it was given an anti-sedative. Three minutes later, the elephant came to and stood up to loud cheers from the rescue workers.
Rescuers gave the young elephant the name, Ranran. Ranran now lives in a breeding center in the reserve. When it has fully recovered from its injuries, Ranran faces three possible fates: it will be returned to the wild, it will be domesticated, or it will be trained to play in a circus.
Ranran is one of only 200 to 250 wild Asian elephants left in China. They are only to be found in the south and southwestern parts of Yunnan Province. The Asian elephant is on the list of endangered species compiled by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and is China’s first-level protected animal.
Although the Asian elephant has been under government protection for many years, cross-border poaching continues to threaten the very existence of this magnificent animal.
Off-Balance Male-Female Ratio
The tusks of the Asian elephant are what poachers are after. The male elephant is most at risk because its tusks tend to be longer and more solid than the female's. Heavy poaching has led to a rapid decline in the male elephant population, both adults as well as younger males.
Moreover, many of the young males are slaughtered before they have had the chance to mate.
As a result, the ratio of males to females is now extremely imbalanced. According to statistics, the male to female elephant ratio in Mengyang Nature Reserve in Xishuangbanna is 1:2.15. For the adult elephant population in particular, the ratio is 1:4.25.
Inbreeding is a cruel side-effect of the imbalanced sex ratio. Inbreeding is a threat to the general population in terms of quality, which is already extremely fragile. In addition, imbalances in the sex ratio could lead to a propagation of the "tuskless" gene, according to Dr. Zhang Li, associate professor with the Beijing Normal University’s Life Sciences Institute and president of the research team conducting field research on the wild elephants in the reserve.
The biggest elephant’s tusk on record weighed 97 kg. But these days it is hard to find a tusk that weighs more than 45 kg.
The Human-Elephant Conflict
The destruction and segmenting of the elephants' natural habitat have forced many of them to encroach on human land in search of food.
In Simao, elephant groups are said to "visit" farmland almost every day. The local government has tried several ways to keep the elephants out including ditches that act like moats, relocating villages and leaving food in forests.
According to the survey by Dr Zhang's research team, per capita annual income in Nanping village, Simao, went down to 182 yuan (US$22) in 2002 from 1,208 yuan (US$146) in 1997. The village head of Nanping, Zhao Jinfu, used to earn an annual income of 10,000 yuan (US$1,207) from selling sugarcane. This was in 1998. At present, however, almost all the sugarcane his family planted was eaten by elephants. Other crops such as corn and rice have also been ravaged by elephants.
Over 100 villagers of Nanping are living on government relief grain now. But their lives are still very difficult. The intruding elephants cause an annual economic loss of 65,000 yuan (US$7,850) to the village, and the local forestry bureau of Simao only has a special fund of 20,000 yuan (US$2,415) to cover compensation to farmers.
In January this year, a female elephant was attacked in Laos. She fled across the border to China with her three-month-old baby. But the mother died from her injuries sustained during the attack.
The fate of the baby, whom rescuers have named Lala, is as uncertain as Ranran's and all that remains of China's wild Asian elephants.
(International Herald Leader translated by Zhang Tingting for China.org.cn August 5, 2005)