June 2 (UPI) -- A herd of 15 Asian elephants that have trekked more than 300 miles across China approached a large city in the province of Yunnan on Wednesday.
While the elephants have captivated the attention of people throughout China and worldwide, authorities fear deadly incidents between residents and the animals could occur as they near the capital city of Kunming.
A herd of 16 elephants began its migration in March 2020 and arrived in Pu'er in the Yunnan province in November, where they settled for five months as a female elephant gave birth.
Two elephants left the group and the remaining 15 continued north.
A task force of 360 people with 76 cars and nine drones has been sent to track the elephant's movement.
No casualties have been reported so far but the elephants have caused more than $1 million in damage including eating whole cornfields and smashing barns and cars.
They have also resisted efforts to divert their path and lure them back to a nature reserve in Xishuangbanna, including blaring police sirens and driving trucks filled with food by them.
Chinese researchers have described the migration as "unprecedented" with Chen Mingyong, a professor at Yunnan University, saying they have "no way of telling where they are going."
"It is common for Asian elephants to migrate, but in the past that has mostly been to look for food within their habitats," he said. "An exodus this far north is quite rare."
The wild elephant population in Yunnan has nearly doubled since 1980 while the habitat area has shrunken by about a quarter in about the same period of time.
"Large-scale human engineering developments have exacerbated the 'islanding' of elephant habitats," said Zhang Li, a professor on mammal conservation at Beijing Normal University. "The traditional buffer zones between humans and elephants are gradually disappearing and the chances of elephants' encountering humans naturally increase greatly."