Maybe they're looking for better food. Maybe they've gotten lost. Maybe they're just adventurous and having a good time.
No one is quite sure. But for some reason, a herd of 15 Asian elephants has been lumbering its way across China for more than a year, traveling more than 300 miles through villages, forest patches — and, as of 9:55 p.m. Wednesday, the edges of the city of Kunming, population 8.5 million.
Since setting out in spring last year from Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, on China's far southwestern border with Laos, the elephants have trotted down the middle of a narrow county street, past a shuttered car dealership and gawking residents. They have gotten into stores of grains left over from fermentation, leading to reports of at least one drunken elephant. They have devoured truckloads of corn and pineapples left out by government officials in an effort to divert them to less populated areas — and then continued on their way.
It's the farthest-known movement of elephants in China, according to experts. Where they'll go next, no one knows. When they'll stop? Also unclear.
"It makes me think of the movie 'Nomadland,' " said Becky Shu Chen, a consultant for the Zoological Society of London who has studied elephant-human interactions.
What is certain is that they have captivated Chinese social media, jolted local officials and caused more than $1.1 million of damage. They have also left elephant researchers scratching their heads.
Experts are urging the public to temper its delight with awareness of the ecological significance, in a country where avid enthusiasm for conservation has not necessarily coincided with a reckoning of what it will mean to live alongside more elephants.
"This is part of the deal," said Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, a principal investigator at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, who specializes in elephants. "We want to conserve elephants and tigers. But we don't have 10,000 square kilometers to put these elephants and tigers and say, 'Be happy there, don't worry.' "
The journey appears to have begun in March 2020, when 16 elephants were seen moving from the nature reserve northward toward the city of Pu'er, in southern Yunnan province, according to state media.
But movement is normal for elephants, which have large "home ranges" over which they travel searching for food, said Campos-Arceiz. The elephants' growing proximity to humans — and their strictly protected status — has emboldened the animals, according to Campos-Arceiz. And, they're smart: As they began breaching the boundaries of nature reserves and crossing into more populated areas, they discovered that crops were more appealing than their usual forest fare.
"Elephants learned there is so much food, it's so nutritious, it's so easy to harvest and it's safe," Campos-Arceiz said. "This means that elephants have been going back to places where they had been absent for a long time."
As a result, it's unsurprising to see elephants wandering beyond their usual habitats, he said, and the phenomenon is likely to continue as their population continues to grow.
The best-case outcome, Chen said, would be for the attention that the herd has drawn to raise more awareness around the possibility of human-elephant conflict, which is likely to increase. Only by preparing people for that reality, she said, would conservation efforts really succeed.
"What we have to learn is not how to solve the problem, but how to increase tolerance," she said. "How can we use this event to let everybody pay attention to the issue of coexistence between people and animals?"