Zheng Tianhong, 25, still feels wronged about the two-year jail sentence he was given for killing an elephant.
"We are not poachers," complains the young man, who was released from prison not long ago. "We just wanted to protect our crops from being ruined."
The story goes back to 2001, in Mengyang, southwest China, where families make a living growing tea, rice and rubber trees. Desperate to protect their farms from being devastated by invading elephants, villagers put up some live electric wires and it so happened that an elephant got killed. Zheng was arrested and then jailed, convicted of masterminding the offence in violation of the Law on Protection of Wildlife.
Nature conservation experts and zoologists have counted somewhere between 200 and 250 Asian elephants prowling the rain forests in the 240,000-hectare Xishuanbanna Nature Preserve, of which Mangyang is a part. The highly valued species is found in parts of Southeast Asia. In China, subtropical Xishuangbanna is the only natural habitat for it.
The elephant for whose death Zheng was held responsible was in a flock of 13 that frequently invaded farms in Mengyang. Barely one week earlier, elephants trampled a tea farmer to death. The man was then working in his cornfield about two kilometers from where Zheng lives; and it was said that he provoked the beasts into attacking him while trying to drive them away.
The man is not the only person in the area who has fallen victim to invading elephants. Chen Meng was tapping rubber one morning last year when, suddenly, she encountered an elephant face-to-face. "The next thing I knew was that the beast, shrieking, dashed towards me," the woman recalls. She suffered a broken leg and the tear duct of her left eye was hurt. At 25, she is now jobless.
According to Tang Zhongming, the head forest ranger at the Xishuangbanna Nature Preserve, there were around 100 Asian elephants in the Reserve in 1970s. Their number has been steadily on the rise thanks to a hunting ban imposed in 1998. Tang says that in an effort to enforce the ban, local police have seized more than 80,000 shotguns.
The local population, however, has grown equally fast, if not more, from 250,000 in the early 1950s to 900,000 now.
Elephants have very strong social bonds and live in family groups of up to 40 females and their young, with males occasionally joining. They roam in forests, along routes traversed by generation after generation.
"In Xishuangbanna, it is human destruction of nature - excess reclamation of land and indiscriminate felling of trees - that has forced elephants to leave the forests and attack people living outside and ruin their crops," Tang says.
For well over two decades in the 1960s and 70s, large tracts of rain forest in Xishuangbanna were destroyed to make room for things able to generate quick money, the likes of rubber trees. Professor Wang Yingxiang at Kunming Institute of Zoology estimates that elephants in the area have had 60-70 percent of their natural habitat ruined by human activities. "An elephant consumes about 300 kilograms of food - grass, tree bark, roots, twigs and leaves - per day," he notes. "When hungry, they have to leave the forests in search of food."
Last year, elephants killed four people in the area, and injured 13 along with 630 heads of livestock. Loss of crops was estimated at 24 million yuan (US$3.89 million).
Villagers are in constant fear, according to Tang. They dare not venture out before daybreak and hurry back when it turns dark. Before leaving for work, those working on rubber plantations often send an advance team of four or five to set off firecrackers, in hope to scare away invading elephants. "Some have even abandoned their farm plots and crossed over to neighboring Laos for odd jobs," Tang adds.
Administrators of the Xishuangbanna Nature Preserve have set up electric fencing and dug ditches around human settlements. Some 1,100 mu of land (15 mu in a hectare) has been set aside in the core area of the preserve to increase the supply of elephant food - 300 mu planted with bamboo, sugarcane, corn and banana for elephants and the rest for restoration of the natural cover.
In 1988, 1,120 people from eight of the 10 villages in the core area of the Reserve moved out at government expense. Nonetheless, there are still 114 villages inside the preserve and 144 more on its fringe, meaning that more than 50,000 people are still under the threat of elephants.
The Law on the Protection of Wildlife obliges local governments to compensate people for any damage caused by animals of endangered species. The problem is that governments in underdeveloped Yunnan have no money to spare to fulfill this legal obligation.
Between 1991 and 2001, such damage amounted to 60.49 million yuan (US$7.77 million); and only 6.14 million yuan ((US$740,000) was paid in compensation. "When it comes to individual victims, compensation will be next to nothing," says Tang. "Take the rice crop, for example. For one kilo of rice destroyed, the compensation for last year was 0.1 yuan, or 1.1 U.S. cent, one-tenth of its market value."
The local people are surely unhappy. While protecting wildlife, they argue, the government must on no account neglect their legitimate rights and interests. They agree that protection of wildlife is important but insist that compensations for damage caused by wildlife should be reasonable.
Forest rangers at Xishuangbanna are sympathetic. Their leader, Tang Zhongming, supports revision of the law to ensure that victims are fully compensated.
Professor Wang Yingxiang goes even further, proposing that villagers living in the centre of the Xishuangbanna Nature Preserve, 200 or so, be put on the government payroll as full-time protection workers. In addition, he recommends that a corridor connecting separate nature preserves in Yunnan be set up to give more room for the wild elephants to roam.
All these proposals will take time to materialize even if accepted by the authorities, but a pilot project is already generating encouraging results in helping the local people.
The project was launched in 2000 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Simao, some 200 kilometres to the north of Xishuangbanna. It aims to enhance tolerance of villagers towards elephant-related damage by helping them raise poultry and grow cash crops elephants usually do not eat.
Elephants had been absent from Simao for 16 long years after poachers killed three. Since 1993, however, at least five have been counted in the area. Under the IFAW-China project, a micro credit of US$100 is offered to each household on condition that no harm will be done to the forests and wildlife. "Villagers are free to choose the kind of undertaking they like to go in for and we provide the needed technical training," says Zhang Li, the project director.
Zhang cautions that in the long run, dependence on government compensation would not motivate farmers' production initiative. Meanwhile, he calls for a national fund to compensate wildlife-related losses.
Yang Bin, head of the government of Nanping Town where 2,000 villagers have participated in the project, regards the project as "most successful". "It addresses the essential issue of human survival," he says. "Freedom of choice is respected in determining their alternative farming. Once their livelihood is secured, it'll be relatively easy to disseminate among them knowledge of animal and environmental protection."
Summarizes Zhang: "attention to the welfare of both the local people and wildlife is the way to minimize their conflict."
(China Daily October 13, 2003)