The Asian elephant is the largest animal in Asia. In 1986 Asian elephants entered the IUCN Red List, a system that uses a set of criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of different species. The Asian elephant is, since then, categorised as endangered as they are likely to be extinct soon.
Since entering the IUCN Red List, the elephant population has declined by more than 50 per cent. The reasons behind the population loss are shared among other species too. These are primarily loss of habitat, habitat degradation, fragmentation and poaching.
Since April, a herd of 15 Asian elephants have been walking for over 500-kilometre in search of safer areas to settle, highlighting the insecurity they feel in their current habitat and raising the question of new coexistence strategies.
In this scenario, authorities in China have been following and accommodating the longest-distance migration of wild elephants recorded in China through fields and boosting cities to safely guide them back to their habitat.
Authorities have blocked traffic on roads and set up barriers using food as bait to keep them away from populated areas. This endeavour has made it to the media, and what could have become a powerful coexistence experience, has become a negative message.
The media has the potential to change people perceptions and attitudes towards wildlife. What we have seen with the elephant herd migrating across Southern China are not words of hope and positivism but messages very negatively framed. Messages broadcasted held statements of ‘destruction’, ‘plagued villagers’ and ‘wrecked crops’.
To promote coexistence, we need positive messages and strategies in place to allow humans and wildlife to safely share spaces. In the end, this herd of Asian elephants are just doing what elephants have done for centuries, migrate, eat and do their best to fit into the strange human-dominated landscapes.