|Rapid development is encroaching on the habitat of China's elephants [Photo: IFAW]
China's wild elephants are so rare – there are only about 300 left in the southern province of Yunnan – that when American tourist Jeremy McGill stumbled across a group earlier this year in a nature reserve he whipped out his camera and started taking photos.
It was a move that almost cost him his life.
"I was alone when I came across the four elephants," he remembers. "One scooped me up into his mouth and bit me. My body was folded in half, my head between my knees, and then the elephant spat me out and stomped on me… Suddenly they stopped and walked away… I was found about an hour later just lying there with my intestines hanging out of my body."
A few weeks after McGill was hurled to the ground, a Chinese migrant worker was crushed to death by an elephant on his way home inside another nature reserve. In June, an elephant killed a female hawker at Wild Elephant Valley, the same nature reserve that McGill was attacked.
Elephants will get aggressive if they feel threatened, but so many attacks in such a short space of time is unusual, says Grace Gabriel, Asia regional director of The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Part of the problem is that as their habitat disappears to make way for rubber and paper plantations, new highways, dam projects and factories, elephant-human encounters are becoming more and more frequent.
|The growth of farmland is putting humans and elephants into closer contact [EPA]
But it's more than that, says Gabriel. She thinks the elephants are getting more aggressive because they are stressed about how they have been losing their young to human-laid traps.
Over the past few years, several infants have accidentally been caught in steel snares set for smaller animals. The elephants are generally rescued by the nature reserve bureau but are not released back into the wild, even though, says Gabriel, it would be very easy to rehabilitate them.
"Elephants have long memories. What do they remember? And what do they do if they remember?" says Gabriel.
The bureau decided against releasing them and instead wants to use them for breeding elephants for performances or to sell on to zoos, says Jin Yanfei, an ecology student from Beijing Normal University, who studies wild elephants in Yunnan.
Two rescued elephants are currently being kept at Wild Elephant Valley’s "Propagation Centre".
The youngest, Yongyong, was rescued last year when he was just a few months old. He restlessly paces his bare concrete yard, chained by his front leg. He is kept alone like this 24-hours a day, Jin said, even though in the wild baby elephants stay close to their mother until they are around eight-years-old.
After a few minutes, an angry official from the centre ushers us away.
China's elephants are the same species (Elephas Maximus) as are found across much of Asia – India, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Across the region there are thought to be around 30,000 left in the wild, with China's share of just 250-300 animals split into nine groups across disconnected pockets of jungle in Yunnan.
|Elephants are known to get aggressive
when they feel threatened [Photo: IFAW]
Roger Luo has been working for almost two decades on ways to stop a different kind of human-elephant encounter, but one that is just as dangerous.
Luo, vice-director of the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve’s Research and Science Institute, has been puzzling over ways of preventing elephants from lumbering onto farmland to raid maize, paddy rice and bananas.
"We think one of the reasons the elephants steal food is because the bamboo and grasses they can eat inside the nature reserve are not as tasty as the farmer's crops," says Luo.
The farmers can file for compensation but at most this comes to about 30 per cent of the damage. Over the past three years the provincial government has paid out an average of about five million renminbi a year in compensation to farmers.
So far the farmers have not tried to harm or kill the elephants. Poaching for ivory is a problem in Laos and Vietnam but not really in China, says Luo.
Guns are illegal here and as a national grade-one protected animal, like the panda, killing an elephant carries a potential death penalty.
Still, Luo has not yet figured out a way to stop the raids. Electric fences have been put up and ditches dug, but the elephants still found a way across. "You cannot imagine how smart they are," says Luo.
Elephants have also learnt to ignore farmers who use drums and firecrackers to scare them away. The most recent tactic is to tempt them away from farmland by planting a special area for the elephants with their favourite crops.
But without serious measures, China could lose the few elephants it has left, warns IFAW's Grace Gabriel.
The key threat to the survival of the elephants comes from habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, she says, adding that if forest corridors could be built between reserves then they might have a better chance.
"These elephants have nowhere to go," she says. "If these habitats are not linked, if corridors are not built, China may not have wild elephants in 100 years from now."