For months, their trek through China’s south-western Yunnan province had gone almost unnoticed. But last week, when images of a herd of 15 Asian elephants walking through a residential area appeared on social media, it immediately captured the imagination of the nation, generating intense media interest and sparking questions as to what prompted the epic journey.
The movement was so unusual that authorities dispatched a taskforce of 360 people with 76 cars and nine drones to track it. State TV has spent days following their every footstep. And as of Wednesday, the hashtag #WhyElephantsTrekkingNorth had been viewed more than 16m times on Weibo.
About 500km (300 miles) into their walk, the herd were seen on Tuesday evening 3km away from the major city of Kunming, turning attention onto efforts to keep them away from populated areas.
On Wednesday, the herd was in Yuxi, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Kunming, a city of 7 million people, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said images taken by drones used to track the herd show six female and three male adults, three juveniles and three calves.
Chen Mingyong, an Asian elephant expert cited by Xinhua, said the incident was the longest-distance migration of wild elephants recorded in China. Chen said it was possible their leader “lacks experience and led the whole group astray.”
A task force of 360 people with 76 cars and nine drones was tracking the elephants, Xinhua said.
Last week, the elephants walked wandered the streets of the town of Eshan for six hours after residents were warned to stay indoors, according to Xinhua.
Dᴀᴍᴀɢe done by the elephants to farmland is estimated at 6.8 million yuan ($1.1 million), according to Xinhua.