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Human - wild elephant conflicts, China

Populations of wild Asian elephants, once common from the Iranian coast to the Yang-Tse-Kiang, have been considerably reduced over the millennia, with acceleration in the last 100 years that saw their numbers halved. Extinct in most of their former range, the species is still present only in limited and discontinuous areas. In China, the population is limited to 250-300 animals in Yunnan province, mostly in Xishuangbanna prefecture.

Asian elephants marauding near sugarcane fields in Jiangchen, Yunnan

The protective measures adopted have helped stabilize the population that is now growing, and begins to colonize neighbouring prefectures, including Puer (famous for its tea). The Asian elephant is usually a forest animal, but in the mosaic landscapes of southern Yunnan, densely populated, forests are embedded in agricultural areas where farmers grow banana, sugarcane, rice, maize, etc. Elephants use this rich and easy accessible food at the end of the day and during the night, some even occasionally visiting the courtyards in villages to find salt or vegetable stored. In addition to the considerable agricultural damage reported (estimated at $ 3,000,000 in 2002 in the prefecture of Xishuangbanna), death of people seeking to oppose Elephant "visit", or the destruction of houses is regularly reported.

The "Wildlife management and ecosystem health " department of the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics has been requested by the Forest Service of Puer Prefecture, to help find ways to minimize human elephant conflicts, knowing that, like other highly endangered emblematic species such as the tiger, the "taking " of individuals to reduce the population or solve a specific problem of damage is an option already excluded.

2014: Pilote visit

Collecting elephant printsFrom the 10th to 24th March 2014, Patrick Giraudoux (Chrono- Environment), accompanied by Céline Clauzel (ThéMA) responsible for working on the application of graph theory to the conservation of the snub-nosed monkey, joined Dr. Li Li and his Chinese partners in Yunnan, with the support of the Institut Universitaire de France.

The aim was to get the measure of the problem posed by elephants and agriculture on the spot, and to lay the foundations of a network of research-development on the evolution and the monitoring of the impact of Asian elephant populations in the region. Except the biological model and the types of damage, the problem is not fundamentally different from that encountered in wildlife – agriculture conflicts whose the Chrono-environment lab has made a speciality, for example about the systems approach and multidisciplinary research on vole – agriculture conflicts, with multiple stakeholders involved, and seemingly conflicting interests.

That the methods developed in the LTER Jura Arc can serve as a working model in the approach to a problem of conservation biology in China, should finally not surprise those who know that the same type of methodology transfer has already been made about a health issue, namely the transmission ecology of the lethal cestode zoonosis, Alveolar Echinococcosis in Western China…

Discussion on conflict human - elephant with the inhabitants of Mojiang, one of the villages affected House destroyed by elephants. One can also see the field of sugarcane devastated in the background. Elephants regularly came to bath in the river between house and field.

2015: Field visit of representatives of the “Zones ateliers” Hwange and Arc Jurassien

A mission has been organized by Dr Li Li, in Xishuangbanna and Pu’Er prefecture, from April 1 to April 8, with Dr. Hervé Fritz and Pr Patrick Giraudoux, respectively directors of the LTER areas of Hwange (Zimbawe) and Jurassian Arc (France). In Hwange, researchers study the ecology of large mammals (including 45,000 African elephants) and their impact on human activities. In the Jurassian Arc, they focus on small mammal population outbreaks and their consequences on agriculture, health and conservation. In both cases systems approach are privileged and the concept of socio-ecosystems at stake.

The aim was to compare how conflicts between human and wildlife are managed in the three study areas, and to outline research perspectives for the department of wildlife management and ecosystem health of the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics (YUFE).

Meeting with the National Reserve Authorities in JingHong

Researchers met the crew of the Xishuangbanna nature reserve in charge of elephant management, Pr Cao Ming and his team, from the Xishuangbanna tropical botanical garden, village leaders, representative and rangers of the forestry bureau of Meng Kuang and Jiangcheng districts (where 46 elephants can be observed at more than 30 km from the reserve for the latter), and Pr Chen MingYong, from the Yunnan University.

A conceptual framework for studying the ecology of elephant populations has been agreed and will serve as a basis for further research. Priority has been given to mapping elephant habitats and the corridors that may link protected to newly colonized areas, and to establish a consistent space-time database on elephant observations and indices. This research will be led by the YUFE dept of Wildlife Management and Ecosystem Health and will involve other research laboratories of the GDRI EHEDE such as Chrono-environment and ThéMA, and also the “Zones ateliers” Hwange and Arc jurassien.

Wild elephants in a coffee plantation, in JiangCheng Hani and Yi Autonomous County, Pu'er prefecture
Elephant herd in JiangCheng

Special thanks to our friends and colleagues Zhang Ying Chun, Ma Cong, Li Jun and Xiang Fei Dan Zhou who kindly committed themselves personnally to facilitate and support every aspects of the field work. Financial support was provided by Pr Zhang Hong, head of the School of Urban and Environment of the YUFE. Long Yong Chen, of the Nature Conservancy, China, and Zhou Hongxia, from the Guangxi Medical University, Nanning, also participated to the mission.

2015: Meeting with Pr. Zhang Li in Kunming

The Shi San Wu (thirteen five year plan of the Chinese government) put the protection of Asian elephants among the top five priorities for species conservation in China. Zhang Li is professor of zoology at Beijing Normal University (BNU) and a prominent member of the World Conservation Union’s Asian elephant specialist group. On Monday 9, November 2015, Prs Li Li, Zhang Hong, Zhou Yue, Patrick Giraudoux, and Dr Céline Clauzel met him in Kunming at the Laboratory of Wildlife Management and Ecosystem Health of the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics.

The aims of this meeting were:

  • To draw plan for further collaborations between Pr Zhang Li’s group and the Yunnan University of Finance and Economics (YUFE).

From left to right: Prs Zhou Yue, Zhang Hong, Li Li, Dr Céline Clauzel, Prs Patrick Giraudoux, Zhang Li

  • To discuss possibilities for multilateral collaborations playing on the complementarities between YUFE, BNU and the French labs (Chrono-environment, THéMA, LADYSS, etc.)
  • To assess master students work (supervised by Dr Li Li and the GDRI) about the delineation of Elephant - Human conflicts "at risk" areas. Such maps would be of interest to prioritize areas where preventive measures should be taken and to modulate insurance premiums.

Working with Master students. From left to right: Pr Li Li, Dr Wu Gongshen, Li WenWen, Dai YunChuan, (?), Dr Céline Clauzel, Pr. Zhang Li

A consortium including the Pr Zhang Li and Pr Li Li’s groups will write down a proposal in the framework of Chinese call for offers, with the support of the oversea experts of the GDRI. Moreover common meetings between Beijing and Kunming master students working on elephant ecology will be encouraged.

2017 : field control and risk analysis of elephant damage in Mengyang and Mengla natural reserves, Xishuangbanna prefecture

April 6-10. Taibao insurance company has declared more than 13500 reimbursements of elephant damage in Xishuangbanna from 2011 to 2015. Most are located in natural reserves and nearby and some villages seemed to escape the scourge. Prs Li Li, Patrick Giraudoux, Emmanuel Garnier, Zhang Hong, Dr Eve Afonso visited Mengyang and Mengla area to meet and interview people in selected villages and try to understand the reasons why. They were kindly helped by Li Jun and Ma Cong (YUFE) and Zhao JianWei (scientific research department of Xishuangbanna Nature Reserves).

Records of elephant damage (insurance files)

Based on farmers’ sayings it appeared that most of the village incomes are from rubber, tea and coffee trees, and that elephant preferentially raid self-subsistence crops such as maize, banana, etc. in village isolated in forest and nearby (sometimes every month). Moreover, based on farmers’ sayings again, industrial crops (e.g. banana) would be less likely visited and damaged, due to more intensive use of pesticides (believed by farmers to be repulsive to elephants). This was corroborated by the observation that lending self-subsistence fields to agro-business companies has stopped elephant visit in the two cases mentioned.

Technically, it also appeared that, to be fully usable for risk prediction, insurance files kindly available for research must be cleaned up and villages where damage are declared more precisely georeferenced.

Elephant visit in a village (copyright XiShuangBanna Natural Reserve)

With Pr. Zhang Li, the YUFE-UBFC/CNRS group also met:

  • Zhong MingChuan, head of the conservation services of forest department of the Yunnan province in Kunming and discussed the possibility of creating a research plateform in Xishuangbanna.
  • Meeting in the CHAC buildingLi NianSheng, vice-president of the CHAC insurance company and his collaborators to share information about environmental risk insurance systems in France and in China.

The plan for the next future is:

  • to complete village georeferencing in order to model damage risk from landscape and environmental data
  • to design a multi-disciplinary and multi-sectorial plateform for research on elephant ecology in order to make systems approach to elephant issues possible
  • to evaluate the feasibility of increased genetic studies of elephant populations based on non-invasive methods (individuals, populations, pathogens, etc.).

Location of the study area

Contact : Li Li
Yunnan University of Finance and Economics

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