BEIJING (AP) - Video shows elephant calves that are part of a herd migrating through China’s southwestern Yunnan province play fighting just outside a local forest.
The Asian elephants, originally from a nature reserve in the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture, are part of a population of 300 found in the country, according to local news reports.
The herd of elephants have become international stars when major global media started chronicling the herd’s more than yearlong, 500-kilometer (300-mile) trek from their home in a wildlife reserve in mountainous southwest Yunnan province to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kunming.
Twitter and YouTube are full of clips of their various antics, particularly those of two calves who slipped into an irrigation ditch and had to be helped out by older members of the group.
"We should be more like the elephant and be more family oriented, take family vacations and help and care for and protect each other," read one comment on YouTube signed MrDeterministicchaos.
The elephants have been trending for weeks on China's Weibo microblogging service with photos of the group sleeping attracting 25,000 posts and 200 million views earlier this month.
The 15-member herd has been caught at night trotting down urban streets by security cameras, filmed constantly from the air by more than a dozen drones and followed by those seeking to minimize damage and keep both pachyderms and people out of harm’s way.
They've raided farms for food and water, visited a car dealership and even showed up at a retirement home, where they poked their trunks into some of the rooms, prompting one elderly man to hide under his bed.
While no animals or people have been hurt, reports put damage to crops at more than $1 million.
Sixteen animals were originally in the group, but the government says two returned home and a baby was born during the walk. The herd is now composed of six female and three male adults, three juveniles and three calves, according to official reports.
What exactly motivated them to make the epic journey remains a mystery, although they appear to be especially attracted to corn, tropical fruit and other crops that are tasty, plentiful and easy to obtain in the lush tropical region that is home to about 300 of the animals. Others have speculated their leader may be simply lost.
Asian elephants are loyal to their home ranges unless there have been disturbances, loss of resources or development, in which case they may move out, according to Nilanga Jayasinghe, manager for Asian species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.
"In this case, we don’t really know why they left their home range, but do know that there has been significant habitat loss due to agriculture and conversion of forests into plantations within that range in the last few decades," Jayasinghe wrote in an email. "What possibly happened here is that in their search for new habitat, they got lost along the way and kept going."
Authorities have been working to avoid negative interactions and "must determine what the best next steps here are and keep human-elephant conflict at bay," Jayasinghe wrote.
Kunming is to host the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity’s Convention of Parties to discuss topics such as human-wildlife conflict, and "this is a real-time example of the importance of addressing the issue and its root causes for the benefit of both wildlife and people," she wrote.