Chinese authorities say a wildlife ranger has been trampled to death while observing wild elephants in the country's southwest.

The Xishuangbanna prefectural government says on its microblog that Yao Zhengyang went missing Thursday afternoon in Mengwang township.

It says police found his body early Friday and he appeared to have been killed by elephants.

Despite China's reputation as a major market for poached African ivory, Xishuangbanna's approximately 300 wild elephants enjoy state-level protection on a level with China's unofficial state mascot, the giant panda.

Killing an elephant in China can result in a death sentence. Despite the setting aside of land for elephant habitat, the animals are blamed for damage to crops and occasional attacks on humans are reported.