Drought in China Drove Desperate Elephants To Raid Farms and Destroy Homes

Drought in China drove desperate, Asian elephants to raid farms and destroy homes while looking for food and water.

A report by the United Nations University, "Interconnected Disaster Risks 2021/2022," analyzed 10 disasters from 2021 to 2022 to assess the impact they have had on global communities. The disasters have resulted in the loss of 10,000 lives.

One such disaster was "wandering elephants" in China. The report states that as a result of drought and habitat degradation there is "no space left for the wandering giants."

Droughts fuelled by climate change have been gripping several countries across the globe, including China, which has been experiencing droughts for years. It is currently in the grips of its longest heatwave and drought in decades. The U.N. University report analyzed past droughts in the country and the affect they had on elephant-human conflict.

Elephant drought
A stock photo shows an Asian elephant in a barren landscape. Drought has caused elephants in China to wander from their habitats. Wildnerdpix/Getty

The report looked at one incident in China that occurred during a severe drought that gripped Yunnan province in 2020. A herd of 15 elephants, desperately seeking water and other resources, began wandering from their habitat in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve and wreaked havoc in populated areas.

According to the report, a herd of this size is "financially devastating" for farmers. The wandering elephants destroyed crops, broke into homes and damaged infrastructure, causing $1 million worth of damage. Authorities in Yunnan estimate elephant damage to farmland costs over $4 million annually.

Lead author Dr. Jack O'Connor, Senior Scientist at the Institute for Environment and Human Security at U.N. University , told Newsweek that wild animals "don't usually choose to venture into areas heavily populated by people, with good reason." But, "just like people," they are facing a lack of places to live and water shortages.

Drought linked to climate change is a "real problem," for elephants as they require up to 200 waters per day, O'Connor said. And in 2020, Yunnan province "experienced its worst seasonal drought on record."

"Vegetation productivity dropped significantly around March 2020, coinciding with the extreme drought and the beginning of the elephants' migration. So, again like people, animals lacking what they need to survive migrate in search of better conditions," O'Connor said.

"Where these kinds of situations put animals in danger is with the inevitable human backlash that comes with human-wildlife conflict. Although, interestingly, the people that live with animals in this way tend to be very respectful of them, the calls for culls and other types of lethal, population control become part of the discourse after attacks. And this is understandable, as many of the animals being pushed into contact with humans, like elephants, can be deadly."

The elephant population in Xishuangbanna reserve has been increasing. From the 1970s to 2020 the number of elephants living in the reserve has risen from 100 to 300. But during this same time, 62 percent of their habitat was lost, largely because of human activity.

"Encounters with wildlife can lead to direct physical threat and can pose a significant risk to human health and life, typically when either humans enter natural areas such as forests or when wild animals venture into the vicinity of human settlement to feed on crops or livestock," lead author Dr. Zita Sebesvari, Senior Scientist at the U.N. University Institute for Environment and Human Security told Newsweek.

Sebesvari said climate change causes wildlife and human conflicts all around the globe, with similar situations having occurred in India and Africa.

To avoid such conflicts, O'Connor said that "conservation approaches" need to be revisited.

"In the case of the elephants, their numbers have been increasing, but there is less attention on making sure they have enough habitat to accommodate them," he said.

The report also states that more focus is needed on the quality of habitats.

For example in Yunnan province, although 14 per cent of the province is a nature reserve, it is estimated less 4 per cent is suitable for elephants because of factors including vegetation and suitable water access.

In this case, human-wildlife conflict does not always have to be a bad thing.

"Designing mosaic landscapes where farmers and elephants share territory could allow the elephants more space, as long as suitable habitat corridors could allow them to migrate in ways that gave farmers their own buffer zones," O'Connor said.

"For the farmers themselves, there are many non-fatal innovations being used in various regions with this problem, including beehive fences and crops that can be positioned as barriers to deter elephants, such as garlic and chili.

"Finding this balance to live with the elephants is important, as they are likely to continue to wander out into human areas as their habitat continues to decline."