Wild Asian elephants on the move!

It’s a fun story, but it’s also a bit of a sad story.

Last year, a herd of 14 or so Asian elephants living in a nature preserve in southwestern China decided, for no obvious reason, to start walking north. The impulse has turned into a 17-month, 800-mile trek, or “rampage,” as some in the press have been calling it.

The elephants have wandered through farms and towns, broken into homes and businesses, and scarfed down, by one estimate, 180 tons of corn, bananas, and pineapples, along with their usual diet of leaves, branches, and entire trees. Villages in their way have been evacuated and power grids shut down so that the elephants wouldn’t accidentally electrocute themselves. Damage has been estimated at upwards of $1 million.

But the pictures and videos have been spectacular, turning the elephants into an Internet sensation. This is thanks largely to a fleet of drones that have followed the herd and captured the elephants crossing bridges, wallowing in mud, and cuddling while napping.

A widely circulated rumor that the animals had gotten drunk on corn wine turned out to be false, but likely boosted their popularity, at least among people who find drunk elephants amusing—presumably at a distance. (Note: Air Mail Pilot condones neither underage nor non-human consumption of alcohol, but remains a fan of the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence in Dumbo.)

The herd journeys through China, stopping for snacks along the way.

Once it became clear the herd had embarked on more than a typical ramble, the Chinese government assembled an emergency task force to try and keep the animals away from major cities. Thousands of people have laid out food in an effort to steer the elephants’ path and sometimes sprayed water on hot asphalt so that the animals wouldn’t burn their feet.

In June, after following a meandering, zigzagging path that eventually brought them uncomfortably close to the provincial capital of Kunming, a city of 8 million people, the elephants finally turned south, seemingly bound for home. Just last week, they crossed the Yuanjiang River, which Chinese authorities and media took to mean they had reached the final leg of their return trip, though they were still about 120 miles from their preserve.

This is the sad part of the story. Though no one really knows why the elephants set off on their journey, one likely reason is environmental stresses. Thanks to human encroachment, their natural habitat has shrunk over the past four decades. During the same period, however, the elephant population has nearly doubled due to conservation efforts. Less space, more elephants—never a good recipe. A further stress has been a recent drought, which might have sent the elephants off in search of more plentiful food.

Air Mail Pilot wishes the elephants safe travels on the final leg of their journey. —Bruce Handy

Live streams of the herd’s progress are available on YouTube. If you would like to learn more about how to help elephants in general, this article from The Guardian offers a list of organizations that do exactly that

Children of both genders enjoy stories with female heroines, but when it comes to writing their own stories, they prefer male heroes.

They say write what you know. This adage helps explain the results of a new University of Oxford study showing that both boys and girls prefer writing stories in which the central character is male.

The study, led by Yaling Hsiao, analyzed more than 100,000 short stories written by British children aged 5 to 13. Researchers found that about 85 percent of the characters created by 13-year-old boys and about 55 percent of those created by girls of the same age were male.

“I found these results surprising because I have seen unpublished data that both boys and girls enjoy stories with female protagonists,” Dr. Jessica Horst, a developmental psychologist from the University of Sussex, told The Times of London. “So I would have predicted that both boys and girls would have become more balanced over time.”

If the Oxford study isn’t an argument for more women-centric stories, we don’t know what is.

And this isn’t just a childhood phase. The Oxford study shows that the older girls get, the less likely they are to write stories with female leads. Almost 70 percent of the characters created by five-year-old girls were female, but by the time they reached 13, that statistic fell to less than 50 percent. For boys, meanwhile, the number remains consistently at about 85 percent from age 5 through 13.

It’s true that the overwhelming majority of historical and political figures young people are taught about in school are male. “If all boys read is about boys, they may not be motivated as much to think about the female perspective,” Hsiao told the New Scientist.

The study notes that “since children’s books contain more descriptions of males, girls gradually produce more writing about men as they read more and therefore experience more androcentrism,” or favoring the masculine point of view. The Oxford researchers also found that, on the whole, boys read less than girls, and as a result “encounter fewer female characters.”

AIR MAIL Pilot hopes that the next generation of teachers will introduce more female-centric lessons and books into school curriculums and libraries. Boys may be boys but girls shouldn’t have to be! —Bridget Arsenault

Golden snub-nosed monkeys, pictured here in China’s Hubei province, are known for their bright fur, graceful movements, and gentle nature.
Labrador to the rescue!

The dog days of summer, sweltering and slow, are undeniably upon us. But the August heat is no match for the world’s most incredible canines.

When a group of swimmers at a resort in Sperlonga, Italy, began struggling to stay afloat, lifeguards came to the rescue. They weren’t just any lifeguards, though—a trio of dogs arrived to doggy-paddle the swimmers to safety.

The three labradors—Eros, Mira, and Mya—are graduates of Italy’s school for canine lifeguards. With 16 centers throughout the country, it’s the largest water-based canine rescue school in Europe. For 30 years, the school has aimed to produce “six-legged” rescuers—a dog and trainer working together. Advanced drills include leaping from boats and helicopters into rescue situations.

On their mission in Sperlonga, Eros, Mira, and Mya wore floatation vests equipped with handles while their human counterparts gave rescue buoys to the swimmers. With the power of paws and feet, they kicked 300 feet through the water and delivered the swimmers safely to shore.

A canine rescue of a different kind took place in Essex, England, where Fizz, a four-year-old Springer Spaniel and Cocker Spaniel mix known as a “Sprocker,” became the country’s first investigative dog to serve the fire and police departments simultaneously.

British fire-and-police-dog Fizz and her handler, Graham Currie.

Fizz—who has “Disney-like colorful eyes,” as her handler, Graham Currie, told The Times of London—has spent her career detecting arson. She can sniff out flammable materials, which are often indications of foul play, that elude her human colleagues, and has become instrumental to the safety of her community. “There have been a lot of fires that we initially believed were accidental or electrical,” Currie said. “She’s indicated that accelerants were shown and it changed the entire picture of the investigation.”

Now, the police is training the multifaceted mutt to find missing persons in collapsed buildings. Once her training is complete, Fizz will be lowered by harness into a disaster zone, where she will use her excellent sense of smell to locate people trapped under rubble.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, Alfie (an English Spaniel) and AJ (a Labrador) received recognition for their six years of service sniffing bombs. The pair was awarded the Order of Merit from the P.D.S.A. (the U.K.’s most prominent veterinary charity). It’s the animal equivalent of the nation’s Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. —Alex Oliveira