Maybe they are looking for better food. Maybe they got lost. Maybe they are just feeling adventurous and having a good time.

Nobody is quite sure. But for some reason a herd of 15 Asian elephants has been dragging its way through China for more than a year, traveling more than 300 miles through villages, patches of forest – and on Wednesday at 9:55 p.m. on the outskirts of Kunming City, population 8.5 million .

Since their departure from the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, on China’s extreme southwestern border with Laos, in the spring of last year, the elephants have been trotting through the middle of a narrow county road, past a car dealership with shutters and gaping residents. They got caught in stocks of grain left over from fermentation, leading to reports of at least one drunk elephant. They devoured truckloads of corn and pineapples that were left behind by government officials to divert to less populated areas – and then continued on their way.

According to experts, it is the most widely known elephant movement in China. Nobody knows where they’re going next. When will they stop? Also unclear.

“I think of the movie Nomadland,” says Becky Shu Chen, an advisor to the Zoological Society of London who has studied the interaction between elephants and humans.

What is certain is that they tied up Chinese social media, roused local officials and caused more than $ 1.1 million in damage. They also had elephant researchers scratch their heads.

Experts urge the public to curb their joy with an awareness of the ecological importance, in a country where the enthusiasm for conservation does not necessarily go hand in hand with an appreciation of what it will mean to live alongside more elephants.

“This is part of the deal,” said Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, a senior investigator at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden who specializes in elephants. “We want to preserve elephants and tigers. But we don’t have 10,000 square kilometers to house these elephants and tigers and say, ‘Be happy there, don’t worry.’ “

The journey appears to have started last March when 16 elephants were seen moving north from the nature reserve towards the city of Pu’er in southern Yunnan Province, according to state media.

But exercise is normal for elephants, who have large “home areas” to travel across in search of food or mates, said Dr. Campos-Arceiz. It was only relatively recently, for example, that researchers and government officials realized how far this herd had migrated. In April, the elephants were sighted in Yuanjiang County, about 230 miles north of the reserve.

By then, some elephants had turned around while others were born, according to officials. The group now consists of 15 animals.

It is not clear what made the elephants leave their homes. But after conservation efforts, China’s elephant population has increased in recent years from less than 200 a few decades ago to around 300 today, according to official statistics. (Researchers say the actual numbers are unclear.) At the same time, deforestation has reduced their habitat.

According to Dr. Campos-Arceiz encouraged. And they’re smart: as they began to push the boundaries of nature reserves and venture into more populated areas, they found that plants were more attractive than their usual forest dishes.

“Elephants have learned that there is so much food, it’s so nutritious, it’s so easy to harvest, and it’s safe,” said Dr. Campos-Arceiz. “This means that elephants return to places where they have been absent for a long time.”

Hence, it is not surprising that elephants are migrating beyond their usual habitats, and the phenomenon is likely to continue if their population continues to grow. (In fact, Dr. Campos-Arceiz postponed an interview Wednesday night because he was in the Xishuangbanna Gardens in the dark, following another herd of elephants that had moved about 40 miles from their home range.)

However, that does not explain the long-distance movement of the “wild elephant herd north” as the other herd became known on social media.

“I have no idea,” said Dr. Campos-Arceiz, why the group hadn’t settled in one place yet. “Don’t trust anyone who gives you a very clear answer.”

The lack of clarity has in no way tarnished the public’s enjoyment of the animals’ long march. Social media users have cooed over videos of an elderly elephant rescuing a calf that has fallen into a gutter. They have suggested that if the elephants hurry, they will arrive in Beijing in time for the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary next month. Even the state-run Xinhua news agency jokingly referred to the herd as a “tour group”.

The hashtag “North Wild Elephant Buffet Site” was trending on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, on Thursday after residents of a village near Kunming prepared carts full of corn stalks for them.

The government recognizes the amusement of the public but warns people to stay away from the animals and reminds them that they can be dangerous. The migratory herd has not yet injured people, but between 2011 and 2019 there were more than 50 fatalities with Asian elephants, according to state media.

Local officials have endeavored to create “emergency plans for elephant accidents and prevention”. They followed the elephants’ movements by drone and dispatched hundreds of workers to evacuate residents, erect emergency barriers and reserve 18 tons of food.

But there is still no long-term plan.

Ideally, said Ms. Chen of the Zoological Society of London, the elephants would return to Xishuangbanna on their own. But there is no guarantee: In India, dozens of elephants migrated to a human-inhabited river island in the early 2000s and, despite efforts to force them into uninhabited areas, still roam nearby as a “homeless herd”.

The best outcome, Ms. Chen said, would be the attention the herd has drawn to raise awareness of the possibility of a human-elephant conflict, which is likely to increase. Conservation efforts would only be truly successful if people were prepared for this reality.

“We don’t have to learn to solve the problem, but to increase tolerance,” she said. “How can we use this event to make everyone aware of the issue of human and animal coexistence?”

Joy Dong contributed research