XISHUANGBANNA, China — After plundering crops, raiding a retirement home and taking China’s internet by storm, a herd of wild Asian elephants that wandered hundreds of miles across southern China finally appears to be heading home.
The group was guided across the Yuanjiang river in Yunnan province, coaxed by drones and bananas, and is now about 100 miles from the nature reserve it left over a year ago.
The elephants have been on an epic trek that both baffled scientists and drew attention to the delicate balance China is trying to strike with conservation efforts.
Thanks to protection laws, the population of wild elephants in China has roughly doubled from 180 in the 1980s to 300 in 2021, according to the state news agency Xinhua. And a ban on hunting also made elephants more comfortable with entering human communities.
But at the same time, they’ve lost two-thirds of their habitat to rapid urban development, new transportation infrastructure and commercial farmland — forcing a coexistence with humans that is not always peaceful.