(AP) — China
's famed wandering elephants
are on the move again, this time heading southwest, with a male who broke away from the herd still keeping a safe distance.
The group set out from a wildlife
reserve in Yunnan province's southwest more than a year ago, trekking 500 kilometers (300 miles) north to the outskirts of Kunming, the provincial capital.
According to state media
reports, they were spotted on Saturday in Shijie township in Yuxi, more than 8 kilometers (5 miles) southwest of the Kunming suburb where they had arrived last week, while the lone male was 16 kilometers (10 miles) away, still on the outskirts of Kunming.
Authorities are hoping to lead them back to their original home in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture southwest of Kunming, so the direction of their travel
could be a good sign.
Authorities have tried to keep them apart from local residents by blocking roads into villages and luring them away with food
drops, but the herd of 15 has raided farms, strolled down city streets, and foraged for snacks in villages and even a retirement
All of the animals are said to be healthy, and no one has been injured in encounters with them. Officials have issued strict orders not to gawk at them or try to scare them away with firecrackers or other means. China's roughly 300 wild elephants have the highest level of protection, on par with the country's unofficial mascot, the panda bear
Extra precautions are being taken, however, due to the area's steady rainfall and crowds of onlookers expected around the Dragon Boat
festival on Monday. According to reports, additional emergency workers, vehicles, and drones have been deployed to monitor the elephants' movements and protect local residents, with 2.5 tons of food laid out for the animals on Friday.
It's unclear why the elephants set out on their journey, but Evan Sun, World Animal Protection's wildlife campaign manager, speculated that it could be due to a lack of food, an increase in elephant population, and, most importantly, habitat loss.
“The rise in human-elephant conflicts reflects the critical need for a more strategic policy and plan to protect these endangered wild animals
and their natural habitats,” Sun wrote in an email.
“This also presents a great opportunity to educate the public about the challenges that wild animals face for survival and the need for better protection from a government, industry, and society level,” Sun wrote. “These animals belong in the wild, and we need to keep a safe distance from them, which is good for both us and the wild animals.”