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Misleading animal photos shared amid pandemic lockdown

Several photos shared by Philippine News supposedly showing the recovery of waterways in Italy, intoxicated elephants in China and frolicking otters in Singapore at a time countries are restricting human mobility because of the coronavirus outbreak need context.

In its March 19 article “The Earth Is Healing Itself As Countries Go Into Lockdown,” Philippine News passed on two photos of viral social media posts that purportedly show a herd of elephants that had broken into a village in China’s Yunnan province foraging for food “while humans carry out social distancing.” One photo is that of two elephants that netizens said passed out in a tea garden after guzzling 30 kilos of corn wine.

Yunnan officials have refuted the claim, the Chinese news agency Xinhua said.

Xinhua said the photos first circulated on Weibo as early as March 11, the day 14 elephants broke into houses in Xishuangbanna prefecture in Yunnan.

County officials confirmed the break-in but said the elephants in the viral photos are not from the area, the news agency report said.

National Geographic said in a fact check the presence of elephants in Yunnan is not new. It also reported no one has figured out the source of the viral elephant photos.

A reverse image search by FactRakers traced earlier versions of one of the photos. The photo, credited to the Spring City Evening Newspaper in Yunnan, accompanied a July 16, 2019 report of a Chinese website on 300 incidents involving elephants in Xishuangbanna for the first half of 2019.

Another Chinese website ran the same photo for its Dec. 3 article about Yunnan’s plan to build and restore elephant sanctuaries. It also listed Spring City Evening Newspaper as its source.

A Chinese website published this photo in July last year and credited it to a Chinese community newspaper

Various media organizations, such as National Geographic and Snopes, and journalist Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, meanwhile, have debunked images of swans and dolphins viral social media posts claim to be back in Venice’s waterways following Italy’s lockdown.

Philippine News ran the same photos for its March 19 article but did not say they were taken in Venice.

National Geographic said the dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea, 650 kilometers from Venice.

LIke elephants in Yunnan, dolphin sightings in the area not a new phenomenon, however, Snopes said.

Higgins said the photograph of the swan was taken in Burano, about 8 kilometers from Venice.

Like elephants in Yunnan and dolphins in Sardinia, swans are not a new phenomenon in Burano, as shown by tourist photos taken before the coronavirus outbreak.

In its article, Philippine News identified Singapore’s internet media company Mothership as the source of the photos and video of playful Bishan otters and their pups in the city-state. Mothership, in turn, got them from Omni Channel on Facebook.

However, otters, like elephants in Yunnan and dolphins and swans in parts of Italy, are not a rare sight in Singapore.

Otters began returning to Singapore in 1998, two decades after the Singaporean government launched its Clean River Campaign, according to a National Geographic article. At least 90 otters, part of 10 thriving families, live within Singapore and are as much a tourist attraction as the Merlion.

As of March 20, China has 81,300 confirmed cases and 3,253 deaths arising from the COVID-19 outbreak. Italy, which counted 41,035 cases, has surpassed China’s death toll, recording 3,407 deaths. Singapore has 345 cases and no deaths.

Philippine News’ March 19 article has generated 15,093 interactions, including 2,449 shares.


Daly, N. (2020, March 20). Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life. National Geographic. Retrieved from

Higgins, E. [EliotHiggins]. (2020, March 18). Because I'm a massive verification nerd who hates fun, here's a little thread on geolocating these photos that people are claiming aren't from Venice. [Tweet]. Retrieved from

In the first half of the year, Asian elephants caused nearly 300 incidents in Banna! (2019, July 16). Retrieved from (Translation)

Move over, Merlion. (2016, August 25). The Economist. Retrieved from

Omni Channel. (2020, March 17). Otters owned the City because there are not much visitors walking around [Facebook status update]. Retrieved from

Palma, B. (2020, March 20). Did dolphins and swans ‘return’ to Italian waterways amid COVID-19 lockdown? Retrieved from

The earth Is healing itself as countries go Into lockdown. (2020, March 19). Retrieved from

Thiagarajan, S. (2020, March 18). With smaller crowds around, otters explore tourist hotspots of Merlion Park & Marina Bay. Retrieved from

Turrel, C. (2020, March 10). Cheeky otters are thriving in Singapore—and adapting quickly to big city life. National Geographic. Retrieved from

Wee, L. (2016, July 24). Mad about otters: Enthusiasts look out for charming animals. The Straits Times. Retrieved from

Wild elephant drunk on tea field? Erhai Lake, Yunnan: Net photographs are untrue. (2020, March 16). Retrieved from (Translation)

Yunnan plans to build 7,500 hectares of Asian elephant habitat. (2019, December 3). Retrieved from (Translation)


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