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A Herd Of Elephants Far From Home Is Baffling Scientists

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sometimes you look out the window and wonder and see a deer in the park or in your yard. Right now Americans in numerous states look around them and see billions of cicadas. In southern China, people in the city of Kunming looked out the window and saw something a bit larger - a herd of elephants. NPR's John Ruwitch has been asking why they walked more than 300 miles to get there.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The 15 wild elephants have been on the move for more than a year. Along the way, they've tramped through jungles and villages, raided farms and broken into homes. One young member of the pack reportedly even got drunk after eating 200 pounds of spent grain used to make liquor. Chinese state media has been covering their every move.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: The journey started in a nature reserve near the border with Myanmar and Laos. Authorities have tracked the elephants and tried to keep them away from populated areas using bananas, corn and pineapples as bait and sometimes setting up barriers. Experts suspect the animals may be on a quest for resources under pressure.

JOSH PLOTNIK: You know, elephants evolved in a particular habitat. They evolved needing particular resources.

RUWITCH: Josh Plotnik is an expert on Asian elephants at Hunter College in New York.

PLOTNIK: And very quickly, over a very short period of time - you know, 50 to 100 years tops - humans have negatively impacted these environments so that the elephants can no longer survive in them. And so now they're seeking out other resources and traveling 300 miles to find them.

RUWITCH: In a best-case scenario, he says, they'll migrate or be moved where they can be safe and free while protecting humans and elephants from each other.

PLOTNIK: The clock starts ticking when you start to get negative interactions between the elephants and people.

RUWITCH: Taking them back where they came from may be an option, but Plotnik says we need a better sense of their motivation first.

PLOTNIK: If you move them back but you haven't dealt with the reason they left in the first place, they may just leave again.

RUWITCH: For now, the government is warning people to keep away from the elephants - and trying to keep the elephants away from the city.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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