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Free "canteens" have been set up for wild elephants to reduce the friction with villagers caused by their return to the improved environment of Pu'er in Southwest China's Yunnan province, said Shen Peiping, Party chief of Pu'er.
A free canteen was set up last year on an abandoned 20 hectares in Pu'er's Mengkuang village, where elephants are seen. Farmers were hired to plant banana, plantain and corn.
"Elephants have been seen eating at the 'canteen' quite a few times. We hope that with this food source, elephants will pay fewer visits to farmland and the conflicts with farmers will ease," he said.
More free canteens will be begun if needed, he said.
In the past, wild elephants' natural habitat shrank to make way for of rubber and other types of plantations, which were expected to bring farmers better earnings.
With their habitat - and food sources - dwindling, the elephants migrated to neighboring countries. In 1995, they began to return to Pu'er, where wildlife reserves were established, hunting banned, and forest land expanded.
Currently, 71 wild Asian elephants live in Pu'er's five townships, Shen said. They are a nationally protected species owing to their limited number in China - at 250 to 300. There are even fewer wild elephants than pandas.
"Some are newborn elephants, and others are from neighboring countries, including Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. The wild rhinoceros, which had disappeared, has also been seen again in recent years because of the environmental improvement," he said.
But the elephants' return worried local villagers because the elephants were often unable to find enough food in the wildlife reserves and looted villagers' crops. The elephants need to eat 150 kilograms of plants a day.
Liu Da, a villager from Mengkuang who is in charge of observing the elephants and alerting fellow villagers when they approach, said each of the 70-plus households in the village have lost crops to foraging elephants.
In recent years, the elephants would enter villages in July and August, harvest time, he said.
An official with Pu'er's forestry bureau surnamed Lu said wild elephants appeared to be growing more reliant on local farmland for food.
"Some elephants now eat white gourds, which used to not be in their diet," Lu said, who added that elephants are smarter than people had thought and an adult elephant has the intelligence of a 6-year-old child.
According to Pu'er's forestry bureau, wild animals caused losses of 12 million yuan ($1.9 million) annually in recent years.
"Elephants are lovable, but are also hateful because they destroyed our crops," Liu said.
Since the free canteen was established, the elephants have still come to eat villagers' crops, but not as frequently as before, he said.
And insurance the government bought for villagers covers some of the damage to crops, he said.
Shen said that it paid villagers 7.7 million yuan, covering 70 percent of their losses from wild animals raiding crops.
The insurance is expected to keep villagers from aggressively trying to chase off the elephants, which could be dangerous because wild elephants have killed eight people and injured more than 20 in the past two decades, he said.