BEIJING - A wandering herd of Asian elephants has become China's latest social media stars after the group strayed from its natural habitat and set out on a journey through farms, villages and rivers, perplexing residents and wildlife experts.
Since the 15 - including three juveniles and three calves - began their long march up north weeks ago, netizens have been riveted by the pachyderms, tuning into live streams of their (slow-moving) progress, sparking a series of memes.
The hashtag "The Elephant's Road Northwards", a pun on pop star Jay Chou's song title, has attracted over two million "follows" on social media platform Weibo. State media has also had near daily coverage of the troop, even referring to them as a "tour group".
Eating and drinking their way through Yunnan province, the elephants have trampled through farms and villages, broken into a car dealership and got intoxicated on fermented grains, travelling over 500km, so far with little sign of stopping and costing an estimated 6.8 million yuan (S$1.4 million) in damage.
They have been spotted in a tea plantation in Pu'er city, frolicking in a river and also dexterously helping themselves to water from taps.
Scientists and wildlife officers have been tracking the herd using drones. Over 600 rescuers and security forces are on hand to ensure that bystanders do not get too close, and to lure the herd with food towards less populated areas while hoping they will turn back at some point.
Originally from the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve on China's far south-western border with Laos, the elephants have been on the move since March 2020. As they have a fairly large "home territory", rangers thought they were simply going about their daily lives.
It was only last month when the animals started appearing hundreds of kilometres from their usual stomping ground that people started taking notice.
Scientists are baffled by the herd's behaviour.
"The exact reason is still unclear, but it could be that, along with conservation efforts, the population of Asian elephants in the wild has grown and in a bid to find more territory and resources, elephants could leave (nature reserves)," Professor Sun Quanhui of World Animal Protection told local media outlet Red Star News.
Another herd has recently started on a similar journey south. Also from Xiashuangbanna National Nature Reserve, this group has 17 elephants, including two calves born this year, and has entered a neighbouring botanical garden.
China's wild elephant population has increased from fewer than 200 decades ago to over 300 now, according to official statistics.
As at Saturday (June 5), the northbound herd is still hanging around Jinning county close to Yunnan's provincial capital Kunming, chomping on crops, fruit and vegetables.
"Tour group heading north, please ready your Health Code, nucleic acid test and vaccination documents for inspection," wrote one user on Weibo.
"I'll be waiting to welcome you at the hotel lobby in Kunming."