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Elephants: Revered Icon or Dangerous Threat?
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Ai Xianglun pauses, takes a long, deep drag on his cigarette then tells the story of how his mother died.

"Suddenly we heard a distant roar, followed by my mum's shrieking. She was screaming, 'The elephant is hurting me!'"

To the Dai people of southwest China's Yunnan Province, the elephant is sacred. The "descendants" of the mythical "White Elephant God" revere the animal, especially at harvest time.

But when a one-tusked rogue bull came rampaging through a peanut field in the Dadugang village region of Xishuangbanna on September 13, 2005, the result was death and destruction.

"It was a horrid afternoon," mutters Ai, 45.

The strong man's eyes fill with tears as he recalls what happened next.

As soon as they heard the trumpet, he and his brother-in-law sprinted 600 meters from their village to the field, only to find 60-year-old Yu Xiang lying flat on the ground.

Around her: Huge footprints, scattered peanuts and a broken bamboo basket. Her body had been mangled by the elephant's tusk. She couldn't speak.

"She passed away before we could call an ambulance," Ai recalls.

He pauses, stubs out the cigarette, then covers his face with both hands.

"My mum was so sturdy and healthy!" he mumbles into the ground.

For Ai and his family, who had tried to protect and revere the elephant, there is still the nagging question:

"Why did he hurt us in return?"

Wang Qiongxian, 40, trembles at the memory of her encounter with same elephant last autumn.

"Fattened off our crops, he was even taller than our wooden shack," she says.

"Together with four others, he smashed up our barn, tossing out the smaller corn and eating up the bigger husks. We dared not do anything except running away."

Wang lost a quarter of her 0.8 hectares to elephants last year. "Output per mu (1/15 hectare) is about 150 kilograms and our losses were about 7,000 yuan (US$875)," she says. "If it wasn't for the elephants, we could earn over 20,000 yuan (US$2,500) a year."

Of the village's 7.9 hectares, 2.7 hectares stand on the border of the Mengyang nature reserve. More than one-third of Dadugang's 13,180 residents have suffered some form of economic damage from the wild elephants, according to Li Zhiyong, head of the Wild Animal Protection Office of the Xishuangbanna Forestry Bureau.

Since 2001, the elephants have spoiled 762,050 kilograms of rice, 242,860 kilograms of corn, 1,891 tons of sugarcane and 82,310 tea plants. Six villagers have been seriously injured, including two who developed disabilities from attacks.

Clause 24 of the Law on Wild Animal Conservation says that "economic losses caused by animals on the protected list shall be compensated for by local government." This makes it almost impossible to compensate the victims of the protected animals in areas like Xishuangbanna, where the gross domestic product (GDP) barely supports one-third of the local budget, according to the prefecture government.

Wang received 24 yuan (US$3) from the government for her 3 mu (0.2 hectare) of spoiled rice last year. Ai received 12,000 yuan (US$ 1,500) for his mother's death.

"The burial alone cost me over 14,000 yuan (US$1,750)," Ai says.

That's the cost the local residents are paying for their unsustainable development and disharmonious coexistence with wildlife, some experts observe.

By the 1980s, hunting had reduced the population of wild Asian elephants down to fewer than 80 in the last well-preserved band of rainforest on the Tropic of Cancer.

Meanwhile, the human population of Xishuangbanna continues expanding, from 200,000 in 1982 to more than 900,000 today. As 95 per cent of the region is mountainous, all the arable land is taken and the wild habitat is dwindling, with forest coverage dwindling from over 60 per cent in the 1950s to barely 30 per cent in the late 1970s.

Obviously, says Hua Ning, an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) elephant expert, ever-expanding human activities "have affected the elephants' domain." Although nature reserves have been established as a safe haven away from human activities, the conflicts between man and nature are not going away quickly. The 61 households in Yu Xiang's village were moved out from the centre of the Mengyang reserve in 1992, but it's possible their new settlement is still occupied by elephants.

Hua notes that the area available to the elephants is already miniscule, as they occupy about 241,776 hectares of the total 1.97 million hectares of Xishuangbanna.

Natural Forest Protection Project officials began confiscating guns in 1998 and China has witnessed a growth in the population of wild Asian elephants, which stands at about 300 today, according to research by IFAW.

"A growing herd of elephants needs more space and food as well, and so an encounter with local villagers is hard to avoid," says Hua.

This is something Li Zhiyong of the Wild Animal Protection Office knows only too well. He and his colleagues have been brainstorming ways to resolve the rising number of conflicts.

First, they tried digging deep trenches and erecting electric fences.

But the channels soon flooded and the "clever animal" soon found ways around the fences, he says.

Another idea the protection office has is to build "dinner halls" for the elephants. Villagers will grow bananas and sugarcane for the elephants and leave them at special stations. "To date, we have put up 66.7 hectares of food bases for the wild elephants," says Li.

Wang welcomes the idea.

"We're willing to feed the elephants so long as they stop harassing us," she says.

She recently bought 2 kilograms of electric wire worth 160 yuan (US$20) and hung the wires with three light bulbs around her yard.

"I hope these (bulbs) will keep the elephants away," she says. Wang now spends an extra 200 yuan (US$25) on electricity each month. She wishes she could be compensated for the expense.

Her wish seems about to come true. In April, the Yunnan provincial government allocated 4 million yuan (US$500,000) to Xishuangbanna to compensate for the damage done by wild animals. This is half of the total provincial budget for this item and more than 20 times what last year's budget was, according to Li. And the compensation rate is 30 times what it used to be.

IFAW has experimented with a micro-loan program in neighboring Simao, which borders Laos. About 350 families who live with the wild elephants have received 800 yuan (US$100) each. IFAW is helping these villagers learn to raise pigs and grow pepper in place of their more traditional agriculture.

As for the single-tusk elephant that killed Ai Xianglun's mother, Gan Yanjun of the Wild Animal Protection Office has a bold plan arrest it.

"Normally elephants are mild and don't attack people, except those expelled from a herd or in their mating season," he says. "The single-tusk elephant must have been provoked and probably has been attacked by people before. He wanted revenge"

Since 2003, that specific elephant has attacked five villagers, including Yu Xiang. Gan is preparing a report to the State Forestry Bureau, proposing to catch or kill the one-tusk bull.

Gan took part in the rescue of an orphan elephant last January. The calf had been found mourning at his mother's side after she had been shot dead.

Now the 2-year-old Lala, as the Office named him, is kicking footballs in his new home in the Mengle Cultural Park in Xishuangbanna.

Ai mourns his mother. A born hunter, Ai used to kill pheasants. But his gun was confiscated in 1998.

"If only I had that gun, I would take revenge for my mother," he says.

"Whatever the price, even if it cost me my life."

But another villager reminds him that there will be no revenge.

"Elephants here are endangered and protected by law, after all," the villager said.

(China Daily June 7, 2006)


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