It’s the mystery that has enchanted China – why did a herd of elephants travel 300 miles?

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We’ve long known that elephants are dazzlingly intelligent creatures that form close-knit family groups, but the aerial view of a sleeping herd gives us new insight into the touching bonds they form.

At the top of the photo, three adults can be seen lying in what appears to be a protective triangle around a calf, their rear forming a pit in which it can sleep in complete safety. Elsewhere others seem to be spooning each other while dozing in another display of exquisite tenderness.

It’s images like this that have captivated China in recent months as a herd of elephants continue an unprecedented jumbo journey across the country’s southwest.

So far it has sucked up more than 400 police and emergency services members, some 120 vehicles and an armada of drones, causing a social media storm and baffling the battery of experts called in to explain why. a group of wild elephants would like to leave their old home in a protected Chinese national wildlife sanctuary and migrate more than 300 miles north.

Aerial view of elephants lying in what appears to be a protective triangle around a calf

Aerial view of elephants lying in what appears to be a protective triangle around a calf

A trek, mind you, that has taken place along highways, city centers and normally crowded residential areas.

Chen Mingyong, a professor at Yunnan University, has suggested that the herd’s matriarch “led the whole group astray,” possibly because she “had no experience.”

He added, not quite helpfully, “We can’t tell where they’re going.” The trunk-wielding convoy began on March 15 last year, when 16 Asian elephants left their sanctuary in Xishuangbanna, deep in mountainous southwest China near the border with Laos and Burma, and headed for Pu’er City, a tea-producing center with a population twice that of Birmingham.

A month later, their number had risen to 17 as two newborns joined the gang and one elephant dropped out.

By December last year, they had reached Mojiang County. As they continued north, they at one point gained access to fermented grain, resulting in two of them getting so drunk they couldn’t go any further, leaving 15 to continue on to Yuxi City in Yunnan.

And that’s where the fun really started.

It is images like this that have captivated China in recent months as a herd of elephants continue an unprecedented jumbo journey across the country's southwest.

It is images like this that have captivated China in recent months as a herd of elephants continue an unprecedented jumbo journey across the country’s southwest.

For six hours they roamed the streets, rummaging through garbage cans, smashing garage doors, and generally making their homes look worse than a college dorm after a full-throttle party.

At one point, one of the elephants found a water tap in someone’s backyard and, miraculously, managed to turn it on. Drinks all around. In total, the herd is estimated to have caused more than £1 million in carnage, including the destruction of nearly 60 acres of crops, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

Things really started to get serious at the beginning of this month when the elephants entered Jinning District and headed for the state capital of Kunming, which is home to eight million people.

Here, the aforementioned 400 men were deployed to put out 18 tons of corn, pineapple and other delicacies in the hopes of distracting them. But while the elephants liked to tuck themselves in, they refused to stay put.

A migrating herd of elephants graze near Shuanghe Township, Jinning District of Southwestern China's Kunming City

A migrating herd of elephants graze near Shuanghe Township, Jinning District of Southwestern China’s Kunming City

Yesterday, photos of them sleeping were taken while enjoying a well-deserved rest in Xiyang, just north of Kunming. They may have been out for the count, but they were far from out of the limelight as no fewer than 14 drones hovered above them.

So did the group just take a wrong turn 15 months ago? Or is it more a matter of finding new pastures due to habitat loss?

“As a result of an increase in deforestation dating back to the 1980s to make way for farmland – mainly rubber plantations – elephants are now moving through areas populated by humans,” said Becky Shu Chen, a leading conservationist at London Zoo. Others speculate that they were lured from their reserve by the availability of nutritious crops that were more attractive than their usual forest food of grass, leaves and bark.

Miss Shu Chen says elephants that roam vast areas in search of food usually don’t migrate. And a 300-mile trek is unprecedented.

If this group ever gets rid of the travel bug, they’ll be far from home.

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