The mystery of the longest march ever observed among elephants

In China 15 elephants set out on a journey. They've since become stars on social media, but the march isn't over. For scientists, it's a mystery.

The scene must have been surreal despite taking place in a location more exotic than Italy: 15 elephants walk past a closed car dealership and some astonished residents.

Their march began more than a year ago in China, from the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, and went on for 300 miles through patches of forest and villages. On Wednesday evening, the pachyderms approached Kunming, a city of 8.5 million people.

Where is this very long walk headed? And why? Are the giant animals perhaps looking for better food? Or are they lost? Or are they simply having fun?

What do we know about the Chinese elephant march

They are the most famous group of elephants on Chinese social media, but also perhaps the most damaging: their sheer size and incessant movement have caused $1.1 million in damage. When will they stop? Scientists are perplexed and must strike a balance between the danger posed by the pachyderms and the ecological enthusiasm of the population: "We want to preserve elephants and tigers," says Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, a researcher at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, "but we don't have 10,000 square kilometers where we can put these elephants and tigers and tell them not to worry." The reference, of course, is to the elephants and their escape from the botanical garden's safe perimeter.

Scholars warn that it's perfectly normal for elephants to move within a limited spatial range in search of food. In this case, of course, things turned out differently and it's now quite difficult for the specimens to return to where they started.

Why the pachyderms began a walk that seems to have no end

There really aren't any answers. "I have no idea," replied Dr. Campos-Arceiz when questioned about the reasons for the pack's long march. "One should not trust those who offer a very clear answer."

What is certain is that the members of the "herd of elephants heading north," as they have been called on Chinese social media, are absolute stars. Users enjoy recording videos every time they come across the colossal specimens. The height of excitement was reached when a video went viral showing one of the elephants rescuing a calf that had fallen from the gutter.

Scientists, however, are concerned that the VIP status may encourage humans to approach the pachyderms with greater confidence. The danger, authorities warn, remains despite internet fame. And the hope is for a "domestication" of animals increasingly aware of ways to avoid conflict with humans.

Among the animals that have defied borders are squids. And among those that have manifested sui generis behaviors, surely there are mice, even if heterodirected, in some way.

Giuseppe Giordano