How a Herd of Elephants Won China’s Internet

At the risk of exaggeration, you haven’t really lived until you’ve seen an elephant on security-camera footage. In a clip that has transfixed Chinese social media, five elephants pass slowly through a car dealership, indifferent to human attention. Through night-vision cameras their ears look frail and white, like the skeletons of sand dollars. They amble past cars like a family trying to remember where they parked after a trip to the mall. It makes the mind sputter. Like blurry paranormal footage, these are images meant to demonstrate the existence of something images can’t explain.

In April of last year, more than a dozen Asian elephants ventured out from a nature preserve in southwest Yunnan province, near the border with Myanmar. No one is sure why. To date they have traveled 300-odd miles, leaving a wake of slapstick violence. They’ve broken into kitchens, squashed chickens, poked their trunks through the windows of a nursing home and caused more than $1 million in crop damages. They have been accused of getting drunk on fermented grain. Throughout, they’ve been trailed by a human migration: hundreds of officers, more than 60 emergency vehicles, a fleet of drones and constant media coverage.

As the elephants approached the city of Kunming, reporters filmed local officials deliberating in a makeshift situation room, staring up at a satellite map. On social media, The People’s Daily posted about the elephants in between updates on the Chinese women’s volleyball team and vintage photos of Communist martyrs. China Central Television broadcast live footage of the elephants online for four days straight. The network became consumed with elephants: reports on a calf clambering out of a ditch, or heat maps of elephant-shaped blotches shuffling through a forest, or, for young viewers, a blushing cartoon elephant answering questions at a news conference.

Users flooded social media with their own montages of the same few clips: slow pans over gutted fruit, elephants crossing multilane highways, elephants inspecting a clothesline hung with dresses. The most popular video on Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese counterpart, shows a crush of onlookers as someone shouts, “They’re coming!” Would-be streaming stars filmed the elephants’ navigation through the city and then, as the animals departed, streamed themselves eating the demolished pineapples left behind. But in the most fascinating images, the elephants are caught alone, looking ghostly — less like vengeful spirits than lost souls. Their activities are disruptive, but often gentle: They enter, drink mildly from a drum of dirty water and leave.

China’s elephant experts have largely speculated that the herd is moving in response to man-made changes: scarce resources in a changing landscape, and the replacement of small family farms with large, appetizing plantations. One member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences was a notable outlier, blaming “abnormal solar activity” for “awakening” the elephants’ wild instincts. Another scientist suggested that perhaps one of the elephants “lacks experience and led the whole group astray.” Or at least most of the group. Early on, two elephants abandoned the mission and turned around.

In China, many saw elephant livestreams as a pleasant escape from the drudgery of the workday. In that sense, elephant mania has redirected some of the energy of this spring’s quashed tangping movement. Tangping means “lying flat”; the trend began after someone posted a manifesto and a picture of himself in bed, curtains sealed against the midday sun. The term took off online, as Chinese millennials began defiantly napping and posting images of cute animals sprawled out, mascots for the tangping spirit. In the face of untenable work hours and dwindling upward mobility, this was a movement of declining by reclining, excusing yourself from a rigged game. The government quickly scrubbed the term from the internet. But elephant streams attracted some of the same audience. “I don’t want to work,” one user posted online. “I just want to watch all the 15-elephants content.”

On a philosophical level, the elephants do model a certain resistance against the frenzy of capitalism, a surge of nature under the scrim of civilization. It doesn’t hurt that elephants are so relatable. “This herd of Yunnan elephants, following the highway north, destination unknown,” one person posted. “It’s a road-trip movie.” They exemplified a kind of perfect freedom rarely found in modern Chinese life. “I find the whole thing pretty magical,” someone commented on the social network Douban. “They walk down the streets with such swagger.”

Was that a normal hot June day, or a man-made hot June day? Butterflies: There used to be more of them, right?

But their freedom is deceptive. If the consensus view is correct, and the elephants are reacting to environmental change, then they are only a dramatic representation of something that happens all the time: nature accommodating the new world we’ve made. The term for this phenomenon, originally coined to describe generational changes in fish size and abundance, is “shifting baseline syndrome.” The process is usually so stealthy that it takes effort to notice. Entire forests, for example, can migrate, a communal relay that, over generations, may inch the tree line up a mile or two. That’s fast for trees, but invisible on a human time scale — a problem for forests trying to outrun man-made consequences. You can find baselines shifting everywhere, from the natural world (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just updated its “average” temperatures) to the very human one (Major League Baseball’s pitchers now throw the ball so punishingly fast that the league is considering moving the mound back just to keep the game playable).

This kind of change can be creeping and creepy, unsettling in its subtlety. Was that a normal hot June day, or a man-made hot June day? Butterflies: There used to be more of them, right? And then, sometimes, there is a burst of something gloriously unsubtle — rude, enormous, drunk on fermented grains — that feels like a clear, threateningly tangible line. It’s hard to compete with the solidity of multi-ton elephants on your street, blind to local traffic ordinances. Maybe it’s solar flares or poor leadership, or maybe it’s the beginning of the end of the world.

In interviews with state media, a senior engineer at the nature reserve took a philosophical turn. Shen Qingzhong spoke about the need for “harmonious coexistence” and “a certain amount of living-space overlap” as humans encroach on elephant terrain and vice versa. The suggestion conjures visions of nomadic herds wandering through Shenzhen or Chengdu, taking what they need and leaving behind an ambulatory sense of wonder, a breakdown of order that still feels intoxicating, not horrifying. You can watch the world change in front of you, if you have enough battery life to stream it.

Jamie Fisher is a writer whose work focuses on culture and literary criticism. She is working on a collection of short stories.

Source photographs: Getty Images; screen grabs from YouTube.

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