Driving through a tropical rainforest is one of the biggest pleasures I can think of but I was told to stay alert when I approached Xishuangbanna: Wild elephants may roam on the highway.
I didn't have such luck. The highway was built with the needs of these lumbering animals in mind and much of it was elevated to allow for their safe passage.
In order to have a close encounter of the pachyderm kind, I stopped at Wild Elephant Valley, a 3.7 sq km area that's part of the rainforest. To keep humans from intruding in the animals' territory, visitors had to tiptoe on a footpath that zigzags around treetops. I went past a bunch of "tree houses" - not the Swiss family Robinson kind, but pre-fabbed ones used by scientists who in the early days stayed in the forest and studied these animals up close.
A tour of this park is a lesson in animal protection. The Asian elephant is endangered, numbering only a few hundred in China. Because tropical rainforests are dwindling, they are often trapped in small pockets and unable to roam to other forests. Their food supply is also running short, so stories of elephants damaging crops are more frequent. Some are so desperate, in fact, that humans cannot drive them away, even by beating on drums or flashing torchlights.
Over in the park, keepers have a small stable of well-fed domesticated animals but also strategically leave food and nutrients, such as salt, around for the wild ones. A couple of calves had to be rescued by the park after being injured by traps set by poachers in the forest. So, too, an American tourist, who strayed into the park away from the entrance and was thus unaware of the danger.
few pointers for watching elephants: Thou shalt not provoke an elephant with a flash camera. Keep a respectable distance. Bull elephants are solitary, like loners. Come the breeding season, they act crazy. Females are more like the women in Sex and the City, hanging around one another and keeping up their matriarchal society. They do keep a young bull for the purpose of scouting. This might explain why men are always on the prowl for adventure and women tend to be chatty. Just go watch the elephants.
Elephants have the brainpower of small children aged 3-5. They are competent performers and extremely popular with tourists - bowing to them, doing stunts and letting them sit on the back or trunk for photo ops. Clumsy as they appear, they have a feel for music and can even massage a tourist on the back with their paws.
There is much more to watch in the park than elephants. Ficus trees have a way of loving other trees and hugging them to death. It's amazing how they act like serpentines and grow around other trees - sucking nutrients from them and eventually suffocating them. Tour guides compare them to lovers snuggling up to each other.
Nature can teach us a lot of things, things your parents would never think of.