July 20, 2021

Unraveling the Mystery of a 300-Mile Elephant Trek Across China

There’s an elephant in the room, and Becky Shu Chen wants to address it.

Becky, an alumna of the Professional Fellows Program (PFP) and an expert on elephant-human interactions who consults for the Zoological Society of London, has been working to better understand the issues around human-wildlife coexistence for years.

Most recently, a phenomenon in western China has captured her attention – as well as the attention of millions of others. It involves a 300-mile trek of 15 wild elephants from their reserve in Yunnan province in China in March 2020 that appears to have no end in sight.

Since the herd of elephants left their wildlife reserve near China’s border with Laos and Myanmar, they have traversed steadily northward, eating and stumbling their way through the country, and pausing only briefly when a calf of one of its members was born.

The motives of these gentle giants are not entirely clear – but the phenomenon has captured the hearts of millions, with citizens taking to social media to express their fascination and wonder. Yet despite many being enamored by the story, the trek also raises questions about issues surrounding wildlife and human development – particularly given rapid urbanization.

Growing up in Yunnan, China, not far from rainforests and the Tibetean plateau, Becky forged a deep connection with wildlife at an early age. She fell in love with elephants, and developed a passion for promoting and protecting their habitat. With China being home to just 300 wild elephants -- less than 1% of the global population, Becky realized a need to find long-term solutions to help grow the numbers of these animals by encouraging a better human coexistence.

So in 2019 Becky applied for and was awarded the PFP, which she spent working at the Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C. While there, she had the chance to meet with a group of public lobbyists on Capitol Hill to advocate on wildlife conservation issues. Following her PFP fellowship in D.C., she flew out to Alaska to meet the Defenders’ teams guarding the intact habitats for beluga whales, polar bears, and migratory birds.

Her interest led her to begin working for the Zoological Society of London, where she eventually became involved in elephant conservation across China. Liaising with the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group and other conservation groups alike, she has worked to get insights from other Asian elephant range countries about the potential drives of the elephant dispersal and adaptive measures that can be taken. Through this work with scientists, researchers, and countries, Becky hopes to generate more scientific evidence to understand the phenomenon.

Reflecting on her PFP experience, Becky believes her exchange program reinforced her commitment to wildlife conservation. “My fellowship has further strengthened my determination to inform, inspire, and empower more people to advocate for conservation,” she said. And she recommends anyone considering applying to the program to go for it, noting, “Different experiences will help you to grow into a leader in your field.”

Becky also understands that as elsewhere in the world, recovering wildlife numbers means a more challenging task to promote human-wildlife coexistence in the sharing landscape. She noted the hopeful strides have been taken to address the issue – for instance, in China, where resources have been allocated to research institutions and communities to set up early warning systems and 24/7 drone monitoring teams. On the landscape level as well, habitat restoration and Asian elephant national park planning is on the way.

But there is more work to be done, and it is up to each of us to take responsibility. “Conservation has no boundaries,” Becky said. “We share the same planet, and we face similar challenges.”

While the trek of the elephants throughout Yunnan has unprecedentedly drawn the attention of the globe, Becky hopes that the phenomenon can help to improve a global understanding about human-wildlife coexistence issues and ultimately channel more resources to support ground conservation work from partners and other stakeholders.

“The elephants are helping to raise the issues around coexistence,” she said via Facebook messenger. For more details, you can read Becky’s blog post on the Zoological Society of London website.