Pu Zongxin: An elephant monitor
The wild Asian elephant is under first-class state protection in China, and they mainly live in southwest Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture and Pu’er City. Thanks to efforts for years, the elephant’s population has increased to around 300 from over 100 in the 1980s, up by 55 percent.
In recent years, Xishuangbanna and Pu’er have hired quite a few experienced forest rangers as full time elephant monitors, in a bid to better protect the wild species and mitigate the man-elephant conflict. Over the past five years, the monitors have trailed the wild elephants several times in the dense and risky forests, and by sending locals warnings in advance, the monitors are praised as elephant indicators. And Mr. Pu Zongxin is one of them.
On the trail of elephants
It was 9:20 pm on August 8, when Pu Zongxin was on the trail of elephants in the Menga township of Xishuangbanna. A giant shadow showed up on a village concrete road, and with a distance of less than 20 meters Pu knew it was Laoda -- a male wild elephant that often wanders nearby.
To identify the wild elephants, Pu has given them names according to their size, and he also nicknamed the ones with distinct characters.
Laoda, an adult Asian elephant towering over three meters, was having a roadside meal. In Pu’s eyes, Laoda is of the mildest nature, chasing humans in its sight only a few meters away. When eating, it could ignore all humans nearby, making itself feel at home.
When Pu heard it at a road turning, he turned off the flashlight at once and moved back slowly. After a fast run, Pu retreated to somewhere safe and he sighed with relief.
“I hope to see the elephant, but I actually fear the meet. It is much heavier than me, after all.” Pu forced a smile.
“Now this area is frequented by two wild elephants, and Laoda is one of them.” Pu took out his smart phone for a picture, added a caption indicating the elephant’s whereabouts, and uploaded it to the elephant-warning platform. Then he copied the scripts and posted the picture on his WeChat moments and nearby villagers’ chat groups.
Pu is adept in work, finishing all the steps within three minutes. He sends similar warnings once or twice a day. When the area was frequented by more elephants, Pu stayed outside longer to send more warnings.
“Each warning could help avoid a direct conflict between man and elephant,” said Pu.
As soon as Pu stopped talking, a shining flash appeared behind Laoda, followed by a slam on the car brakes. Xiang Zhijie, another elephant monitor with a UAV, said the animal would have been disturbed if the driver had not noticed it timely.
It was 11:30 pm when Pu finished monitoring. The night was tender, and he could only hear insect chirps and frog croaks. Sure of the fact that no one would come, they put away the equipments and returned for a sleep. “We have to keep an eye on wherever there is elephant activity.”
Destined to be with elephants
Dark-skinned and energetic when walking, 178-cm-tall Pu Zongxin has some gray hair and he wears a pair of black-framed glasses. Approaching his 50s, Pu used to be a ranger at the Menga forestry depot, and his current job has something to do with an elephant flock.
In 2007, a group of elephants, perhaps by chance, migrated to Menghai County from the neighboring Lancang County, Pu’er City. At the news, the county town was in ferment for many folks rushed to the scene to see the animal in person. Though Pu did not follow the trend, he did take it as something novel.
“Someone said elephants have come, and all of us are thrilled. We only saw them on TV, after all,” Pu recalled. Unexpectedly, the elephants got sort of settled, foraging at night collectively and resting in the woods during the day. With the expansion of the scope of elephant activities, the Menga township, where Pu lives, began to trail the wild animals in 2012. “I did not see them, but I know they were there. So we’re really cautious,” Pu said.
"In 2015, the elephants initiated frequent offensives, and we’re quite nervous.” It was in this year that Pu became an elephant monitor. He shouldered daily monitoring in the scope of elephant activities.
Pu’s job is to trail the elephants. While others can retreat at the sign of elephants, he has to take a closer look to locate the exact spot of elephant activity. Taking pictures of high definition, Pu sends the warnings in time.
However, it was by no means easy for Pu to decide to be an elephant monitor. Since it is always risky, the family has repeatedly urged him to quit the job.
“I used to take wild elephants as rarities, but I’ve been sort of afraid since I knew at some point they do hurt humans.” However, Pu also realized there must be someone to do this, and doing a good job can reduce man-elephant conflicts. Having attended the training, Pu embarked on his journey of elephant trails.
Challenges in monitoring elephants
“To trace the elephants, you have to get to know them first.” Pu has dug out the disposition and routines of wild elephants: They would get out of woods earlier on scorching days and later on rainy days; and based on their excrement, Pu can clearly tell the former site of elephant activity, be it a sugarcane field or a farmland of corns.
But it is still of risk, for Pu has long been on the trial of elephants. In June 2016, the thermal-imaging drone was first put to use, to the great relief of Pu. In monitoring the elephant activities, the UAVs help him a lot. So Pu is especially fond of the drone.
“It is safe and effort-saving, and the drone covers the half-day-walk mileage within minutes.” Pu said the only pity is that drones cannot work on rainy days, when the monitors have to reach the sites physically. The moment rain ceases, drones take off to widen the monitoring scope.
To curb man-elephant conflicts, Yunnan has set up the monitoring and warning mechanism for wild Asian elephants. By using UAVs, infrared cameras, apps and WeChat, warnings were released real time, mitigating losses caused by elephant offensives.
During the interview, Pu showed a video clip on his phone, where a tall man in a white coat was chased by a roaring wild elephant, stirring up a dust puff on the road. The man is Pu, who revealed that more thrilling scenes occurred but were not recorded.
In February 19, one of the elephants long monitored by him did not show up.
Rushing to the drone operator surnamed Xiang, Pu stared at the UAV screen and counted the number twice: 12! One is missing. It was getting dark, and Pu knew something serious could have happened. But the monitors could do nothing but gaze at the screen.
Minutes later, one villager called in, saying a wild elephant had entered the village. Getting on a car, Pu and his work mates rushed to the scene: It was a complete mess, and the irritated female animal was approaching to the villagers’ meeting room.
At the sight of the monitors, the adult elephant chose their UAV remote control for offensive. Without hesitation, Pu made a sudden overturn on the ground just in time to snatch back the controlling unit. “The tool cannot be damaged, or we’ll all get bilnd,” Pu said.
To locals, Pu is like an indicator of wild elephants. Wherever he is seen, they know the animals are not far away and precautions were done in time. “Even on the street, many would ask me where the elephant is, and I see the significance of my job,” said Pu.
Reporting by Yan Yong, Yao Bing and Sun Min; Online photos; Trans-editing by Wang Shixue