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No one knows where they are going or why. Since last March, a family of wild elephants in southwest China has trekked more than 300 miles, traveling north through fields, highways, villages and towns.

They have stolen crops, rolled around in villagers' courtyards looking for food, and broken into a car dealership where they drank buckets of water and left muddy footprints. The herd has been labeled "The Northbound Wild Elephant Eating and Walking Tour." In one incident, two young elephants reportedly raided a villager's stores of corn liquor and later appeared to pass out in a field.

"We have no way of telling where they are going," Chen Mingyong, a professor at Yunnan University who studies wild elephants, told state broadcaster CCTV.

From local residents to officials and TikTok influencers, the country has been transfixed by the family of 15 Asian elephants who have ignored police sirens and trucks laden with food, attempts to lure them home to their nature reserve in Xishuangbanna near China's border with Laos and Myanmar.

On Wednesday, the family reached the outskirts of Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, where authorities fear deadly accidents between residents and the wild animals will become more likely. Traffic controls were put in place outside a village near the city of Yuxi, where the elephants were expected to pass. Crowds gathered to watch from a distance, according to local media reports. Farmers grabbed piles of dung to use as fertilizer while bloggers set up their phones to film themselves.

Chinese researchers, describing the migration as "unprecedented" in China, said the elephants may be on a quest for food and territory as a result of their shrinking habitat in the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in Yunnan. The wandering herd has caused about 6.8 million yuan ($1.1 million) in lost crops, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

"It is common for Asian elephants to migrate, but in the past that has mostly been to look for food within their habitats," said Chen. "An exodus this far north is quite rare."

Cao Dafan, project lead of Asian Elephant Protection, wrote in an article on the group's WeChat page that possible reasons could be shifts in their environment, drought or changes in food supply. "Some experts have also discussed whether it is a random choice in itself, which makes sense in my opinion," he wrote.

"Inexperienced leadership" of the elephant in charge could be another reason for the long journey to nowhere, according to Chen. "Maybe it got it wrong but still thinks it's going the right way," he said.

The Washington Post's Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

An Asian elephant and her baby make their way toward an outbuilding where they will drink and bathe at the Okinawa Zoo and Museum in Japan.
An Asian elephant and her baby make their way toward an outbuilding where they will drink and bathe at the Okinawa Zoo and Museum in Japan. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

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