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Bowdoin College

Publication Date

Spring 2009

Program Name

China: Chinese Culture and Ethnic Minorities


In Jinghong, the capital city of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, elephants are everywhere. Unlike some Southeast Asian cities, however, where live domestic elephants roam the streets, these are depictions of elephants. On a walk through the city, one might see a city park lined with statues of elephants in playful, rearing poses, stylized elephants standing stolidly in the midst of a busy traffic intersection, motorcycles and taxis whizzing past, or a gold-leafed mosaic of elephants adorning the outside of an upscale hotel. The various images may delight the eyes of tourists to Xishuangbanna, but they also have a deeper significance. The multitude of elephant images in Jinghong is a testimony to the importance of the animals in the region’s history, traditional culture, and natural landscape. Because of this importance, the government uses elephants as symbols of Xishuangbanna in order to feed a rapidly growing tourist industry; this is manifested in the images spread across Jinghong. To the prefecture government, elephants are a crucial part of the region – they are endangered animals that merit the highest-level government protection as well as useful tourist attractions that help to rake in billions of yuan each year in the tourism business. Thus, elephants appear in tourist literature and public architecture, are put on display in the Wild Elephant Valley tourist park, and are vigilantly protected in the three giant nature reserves home to most of China’s 200-250 wild Asian elephants. However, in rural villages across Xishuangbanna, far from bureau offices in Jinghong, the presence of elephants takes on a much different meaning. Here, night after night, elephants are prone to wander from the nearby nature reserves into village cropland, eating their fill of corn or bananas and in the process creating mounting economic losses for local farmers. In addition, elephants may on occasion seriously injure or even kill a villager who stays out too late or gets too close. Elephants have traditionally been considered lucky, and have long played a significant role in Xishuangbanna’s history and culture, but the frequent conflicts between people and elephants have led to a complicated and problematic relationship between the two in and around affected villages. In response to such problems, the government pays out money to affected villagers and, along with two NGOs, has undertaken a variety of projects designed to prevent elephant incursions. But the amount of money is small, the projects often have mixed results, and the scale of the problem so large that the majority of villagers must deal with the problem on their own. In contrast to the high value that the government places on elephant protection, the relationship between farmers and elephants is stuck in a state of continuous conflict. For my independent study project, intrigued by the presence of a tiny but nevertheless important population of elephants in a faraway corner of southwestern China, I traveled to Xishuangbanna for a month to try to understand something of the interactions between people and elephants in the region. This would presumably be a relationship based on the use of elephants for tourism, the importance of elephants in local culture, and the crop destruction that I already knew was a significant problem involving elephants, among other things. What I found over the course of the month is that this relationship was often complex and difficult to comprehend, and perhaps most importantly, it varied between groups of people. I came to see that government officials had a very different perspective on elephants than did poor villagers. However, it was also important not to simplify this difference into a black-and-white contrast between victimized villagers and a neglectful government, as I was initially prone to do when I began my research. By the end, I had learned that the relationship between people and elephants was more complicated and dynamic than I had first thought, varying according to the nature of the interactions in each different context. Despite their tiny population size, the presence of elephants in China, particularly in a region marked in its intensive agricultural land use, has led to fascinating if often antagonistic interactions between these animals and their human neighbors. In the following pages, I will first examine the history of elephants in China and Xishuangbanna, along with the traditional place of elephants in Dai culture, in order to situate elephants in their cultural and historical context within China. I will then discuss the current use of elephants for tourism purposes, analyzing the elephant images in Jinghong architecture, the use of elephants in tourist literature, and the Wild Elephant Valley as a tourist site that revolves around elephants. Following this, I will give some basic background information on the life history and population status of China’s elephants as well as information about the nature reserves in which they make their home. I will then discuss the conflicts between humans and elephants, including human threats to elephants as well as the personal harm and crop destruction that elephants cause to humans. Afterwards, I will describe the government response to the problem and various attempts to mitigate the conflicts, evaluating the success or failure of each program. Finally, I will give a subjective account of my visit to a village affected by elephants, and attempt to sum up my experience in the final pages.


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