We have long known that elephants are dazzlingly intelligent creatures who form close-knit family groupings, but the aerial photograph of a sleeping herd gives us a fresh insight into the touching bonds they form.
At the top of the picture three adults can be seen lying in what appears to be a protective triangle around a calf, their rears forming a well in which it can sleep in complete safety. Elsewhere, others appear to be spooning each other as they doze in another display of exquisite tenderness.
It is images like these that have captivated China in recent months as a herd of elephants continues an unprecedented jumbo journey across the south west of the country.
So far it has sucked in more than 400 police officers and members of the emergency services, some 120 vehicles, and an armada of drones, as well as creating a social media storm and baffling the battery of experts called upon to explain why a group of wild elephants would want to leave their long-standing home in a protected Chinese national nature reserve and traipse more than 300 miles north.
Aerial photograph of elephants lying in what appears to be a protective triangle around a calf
A trek, mark you, that has taken in motorways, city centres and normally crowded housing estates.
Chen Mingyong, a professor at Yunnan University, has suggested the matriarch of the herd may have ‘led the whole group astray’, possibly because she was ‘lacking in experience’.
He added, not entirely helpfully: ‘We have no way of telling where they are going.’ The trunk-swaying convoy got under way on March 15 last year, when 16 Asian elephants left their reserve in Xishuangbanna, deep in China’s mountainous south west near the border with Laos and Burma, and headed in the direction of Pu’er City, a tea-producing centre with a population twice the size of Birmingham’s.
A month later, their number had risen to 17 on account of two newborns joining the gang and one elephant dropping out.
By December last year, they had reached Mojiang County. As they continued heading north, at some point they gained access to fermented grain, with the result that two of them got so inebriated that they were incapable of going any further, leaving 15 to carry on to Yuxi City in Yunnan.
And that’s where the fun really started.
It is images like these that have captivated China in recent months as a herd of elephants continues an unprecedented jumbo journey across the south west of the country
For six hours, they roamed the streets, rummaging in bins, bashing into garage doors, and generally leaving homes in a worse state than a student flat after a full-throttle freshers’ party.
At one point, one of the elephants found a water tap in someone’s back yard and — miraculously — managed to turn it on. Drinks all round. In all, the herd is estimated to have caused more than £1 million worth of carnage, including the destruction of nearly 60 hectares of crops, and forced thousands of people to abandon their homes.
Things began to get really serious at the start of this month when the elephants entered Jinning District and headed for the state capital of Kunming, home to eight million people.
This is where the 400 personnel mentioned earlier were deployed to put out 18 tons of corn, pineapples and other delicacies in the hope of distracting them. But while the elephants were happy to tuck in, they refused to stay put.
A migrating herd of elephants graze near Shuanghe Township, Jinning District of Kunming city in southwestern China
Yesterday, the images of them sleeping were taken as they enjoyed a well-deserved rest in Xiyang, due north of Kunming. They may have been out for the count but they were far from out of the limelight as no fewer than 14 drones hovered above them.
So did the group just take a wrong turning 15 months ago? Or is it more a case of seeking pastures new due to habitat loss?
‘As a result of an increase in deforestation dating back to the 1980s to make way for agricultural land — mainly rubber plantations — the elephants now find themselves moving through areas populated by people,’ says Becky Shu Chen, a leading conservationist at London Zoo. Others speculate that they were lured out of their reserve by the availability of nutritious cultivated crops more appealing than their customary forest fare of grass, leaves and tree bark.
Miss Shu Chen says that while elephants roam over huge areas in search of food they do not usually migrate. And a trek of 300 miles is unprecedented.
If this group ever does lose the travel bug, they will find themselves a long way from home.