By Andrew Jacobs
XISHUANGBANNA, China — At a time when tens of thousands of elephants across Africa are being slaughtered to feed the Chinese appetite for ivory, it turns out the best place to be a wild elephant may be here in the tropical forests of southwest China.
Over the past two decades, the number of Asiatic elephants in Yunnan Province in China has roughly doubled, to nearly 300, thanks to government-financed feeding programs, wildlife education efforts and a strict elephant protection law unmatched anywhere else in the world. Convicted poachers in China face the death penalty.
Since 1995, when four people were executed by firing squad for killing an elephant, only a handful of domestic elephants have been poached for their tusks, according to the state news media, and not one in the past decade.
“Elephants have it pretty good here because it’s safe and there is plenty to eat,” said Chang Zongbo, a local forestry official. “Once the elephants cross the border from Laos, where hunting is allowed, they never want to go back.”
The biggest threat they face in China is loss of habitat.
With Yunnan’s forests rapidly giving way to rubber and other cash crops, the country’s half-dozen or so elephant families have become marooned in disconnected preserves. Zoologists say the inability to breed with other herds threatens the elephants’ genetic diversity, leaving them vulnerable to disease.
At the same time, the region’s growing human population has led to a surge in conflicts between man and beast, some fatal. Over the past four years, three people have been trampled to death and a dozen injured in Yunnan by marauding elephants, many of which have become accustomed to grazing on the sugar cane, rice and pineapples planted by local villagers.
Such conflicts play out nightly in Shangzhongliang, an isolated village near the Laotian border, where residents, most of them members of the Dai ethnic minority, have been trying for months to chase away a family of 20 or so elephants from an adjacent nature preserve that ravages their crops after dark. One farmer, Xiong Dan, 30, said he and his wife wake up three to four times a night to toss firecrackers into the fields, a tactic he says has proved increasingly futile.
“These elephants are so smart they just sneak around to another area and keep eating,” he said, standing amid a decimated stand of banana trees. “Of course, it’s very nerve-racking work because if you get too close, they will come after you.”
The authorities have tried to ease the sting of elephant crop raids by compensating farmers for their losses. In 2012, the government dispensed nearly $480,000 through a private insurance company, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency, although residents complain that the reimbursements do not cover the market value of their lost crops.
In densely populated areas where elephants are known to roam, forestry officials have been creating vast “elephant canteens” planted with corn, bamboo and other foraging favorites to dissuade them from pillaging farmers’ fields. International environmental groups are also trying to address the problem by buying or leasing cultivated land and restoring the forest in an effort to extend elephant habitat, and to create corridors one day connecting the region’s far-flung nature preserves.
After years of telling villagers to protect their fields with trenches and electric fencing — barriers easily breached by wily elephants — other groups, like the International Fund for Animal Welfare, are teaching farmers how to coexist peacefully with their hungry four-ton neighbors. In recent years, the organization has provided microloans to 2,000 farmers in seven villages to help them switch from planting rice and bananas to tea, a profitable crop that elephants do not eat.
Although harder to quantify, China’s elephants are also benefiting from a growing affection among middle-class Chinese, a love affair largely inspired by tourism officials who have embraced the elephant as an irresistible marketing mascot. In Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna Prefecture (pronounced she-shwang-ban-na), a cavalcade of bronze and stone elephant statues — some ferocious looking, others positively giddy — have been mounted on traffic islands and in front of new Thai-style shopping malls.
“Who doesn’t love the elephant?” said Xiong Qiaoyong, 30, a ranger at Wild Elephant Valley, a popular nature park on the outskirts of Jinghong that draws thousands of visitors a day. Although 16 to 24 elephants are said to live in the 900-acre preserve, most encounters between man and beast take place in a dusty circus ring, where visitors enjoy $5 elephant rides or watch a pack of world-weary performers stand on their hind legs and dutifully place hats and scarves on the heads of petrified audience members.
But neither public fondness for elephants nor draconian antipoaching laws can compete with the financial lure of rubber, which is increasingly robbing Yunnan of its vaunted rain forests. Over the past decade or so, rubber plantations have come to occupy nearly a quarter of Xishuangbanna, home to more than 90 percent of China’s elephants, according to R. Edward Grumbine, a visiting scientist at the Kunming Institute of Botany, all of it to feed China’s booming tire industry. Rubber prices have more than quadrupled since 2002, making thousands of former subsistence farmers fabulously wealthy.
The downside of so much rubber is a monoculture that scientists describe as an ecological dead zone, where birds are seldom heard and elephants have nothing to eat. Mr. Chang, 46, the forestry official, said most of the forests outside government-protected nature preserves had been gobbled up by rubber farmers in recent years. “Growing up, you never saw elephants, but that’s because there was so much jungle back then,” he said. “Now they are squeezed into little disconnected islands, surrounded by highways and towns, so they are easier to find.”
On paper, more than seven million acres in Yunnan has been designated as forest preserve, but Mr. Chang said local officials often looked the other way as farmers and developers nibbled away at parkland. “The destruction is a national tragedy,” he said. “We need the central government to put their foot down and help; otherwise the elephant is doomed.”
The Asian elephant faces similar pressure from Bangladesh to Indonesia. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are 40,000 to 50,000 left, a 50 percent drop since the beginning of the 20th century. More than two-thirds are in India and Sri Lanka.
In Shangzhongliang, the nightly skirmishes are testing the age-old Dai reverence for the elephant, viewed as a harbinger of good fortune.
Asked about the growing conflict, one young farmer, Piao Long, smiled. “Of course we love the elephant, because they are a nationally protected animal,” he said. But later, after a few warm beers, Mr. Piao, 26, confessed his true feelings. “They eat all our crops, so of course we hate them,” he said. “If we could, we’d kill them all.” Video.