Wild Elephant Valley
Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant & Nature Reserve lies at the crossroads between the eastern and western zones of the Mengyang Tourism Area, at 747–1055 meters above sea level. The reserve is made up of low hills and small hillocks, with wide valley bottoms rich in waterholes that contain enough salt to meet the biological needs of the wild Asian elephant. The wild elephant groups that roam about in the protection zone between Mengla and Mengyu are designated as National Elephants, while those that roam about inside the Mengla protection zone are designated as International Elephants, as the latter often come and go across the China-Laos border.
Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant Valley
The Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant & Nature Reserve, with its dense forest and its rich variety of animals and birds, many of which are rarely seen outside a zoo, is one of the few places in the world where wildlife can be viewed in its natural habitat, where it is us humans who are "caged in", as it were, as we watch the wild animals and birds go about their daily lives with as little interference as possible from us humans, while still allowing us to witness these fantastic creatures in their natural setting. All of which makes Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant & Nature Reserve something of an open-air museum, but an open-air museum with a difference: these creatures cavort about in their natural habitat, not in a man-made, city zoo habitat.
Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant & Nature Reserve consists of four sites of interest to the visitor:
· An Asian Elephant Breeding Center, established in Xishuangbanna by the Chinese government's State Forestry Commission, but still under construction;
· An Asian Elephant Ecological Observation Center;
· The natural corridor, or ravine, where wild animals roam freely (and where the visitor may observe these animals via a cableway over the ravine), including - besides the wild elephants, of course - the bear and the water buffalo, and where there is a Python Pavilion, a Bird Park that is home to a number of rare birds, and a Butterfly Park;
· And lastly, a Jinuo ethnic minority village with a tent camping facility offering campfire parties, and, for those who require a more tranquil stay, mountain huts for rent.
At the Jinuo village the visitor can observe first-hand the unique lifestyle of this special minority group, and, with a bit of luck, one might observe a Jinuo religious ceremony where ritualistic music is played involving the use of very large - and sacred - sun-drums (the Jinuo are animists, i.e., they believe, as do many other ethnic groups around the world, including American Indians, that all things, inanimate as well as animate, possess a spirit, the sun being especially sacred to the Jinuo - to learn more about the Jinuo ethnic minority, click here).
A Survey of the Reserve's Natural Resources
The planned area of Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant & Nature Reserve is 369 hectares. The reserve is abundant in various natural resources including subtropical forests, tropical rainforests (these are found in the valleys below 800 meters above sea level), half-deciduous rainforests (distributed between 800-900 meters above sea level), and subtropical evergreen broad-leafed forests. And of course, there is the usual range of naturally-occuring wild animals in these various forest habitats. In addition, there are more than 400 types of plants on either side of the ravine that is home to the wild elephant herds, including the banyan, olive, and longan tree.
There are several groups, or families, of wild elephants living in the ravine, numbering about 60 head in all. They share the ravine with the bear, the wild buffalo, and the cobra, to name some of the more exotic species. It would be unfair not to point out that the reserve is also home to many wild birds which attact the attention not only of international bird experts, but also of groups of visiting bird-watchers.
Asian Elephants versus African Elephants
China has traditionally been a breeding grounds for the Asian elephant (aka Indian elephant), which is somewhat smaller than its African cousin. Because of naturally-occurring as well as man-made changes in the wild elephant's habitat over time, there are today only about 300 Asian elephants living and multiplying in the free on the virgin forest lands of Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant & Nature Reserve. The Asian elephant represents the largest land mammal native to China.
Compared to the African elephant, the Asian elephant weighs between 3-6 metric tons (the African elephant, between 4-7½ metric tons), has two cranial bulges with an indent in the center (the African elephant has only a single cranial bulge and thus no indent), has small, square-ish, slightly droopy ears ('the ear of the African elephant is shaped like the African continent', it is said; in any case, it slopes back and slightly upwards and outwards, masking the animal's neck when seen in profile), has a lower lip that protrudes markedly and is tapered (the lower lip of the African elephant is rounder and hardly protrudes at all), and lastly, the Asian elephant has tusks that are generally shorter and lighter, even when they on occasion can reach the same length as those of the African elephant. Moreover, the tusks of the female Asian elephant are often only embryonic by comparison, and sometimes completely lacking (the tusks of the male are generally larger for both species*).
With its richly varied flora and fauna, its many streams and waterholes, and with the added state protection that the reserve enjoys, Xishuangbanna Wild Elephant & Nature Reserve is truly an ideal habitat for the many wild animals and birds that make their home here.
* The two species cannot cross-breed - at least not successfully. The only known example of such a cross-breeding occurred in 1978 at Chester Zoo in the UK, and not by design. The staff had noticed that the African bull elephant, Jumbolino, flirted and eventually mated with the Asian cow elephant, Sheba, but no one expected a pregnancy to develop, since the two animals are not only of different species, they are of different genuses. In nature, cross-breeding between two different species generally leads to a hybrid (i.e., cannot reproduce), like the mule (a cross between the horse and the donkey), while cross-breeding between two different genuses was believed to be impossible. And indeed, it may very well be the case that even though offspring, by freak chance, may result via cross-breeding between different genuses, it cannot survive, as happened, alas, in the case of Motty, son of Jumbolino and Sheba, who died only two weeks after he was born.