African business, politics and lifestyle
In search of the rarest elephants
Dawn was breaking and wisps of mist rising through the dense trees as wildlife expert and author Gareth Patterson and I set off into the forest, in search of one of the last remaining elephants of South Africa’s Knysna forests.
The Knysna forest, an expanse of 121,000 hectares of forest managed by South African National Parks, is home to the last remnants of the once abundant herds of Cape Bush elephants that inhabited the Southern Cape.
By the turn of the 20th century, hunters and ivory poachers had thinned out the herds of hundreds to a few score. By 1994 SANPARKS declared officially that there was only one elephant remaining.
But Gareth Patterson’s research and studies in the Knysna forests tends to show otherwise. Renowned for his work on the African lion with “Born Free” author Joy Adamson, Gareth has spent the past eight years covering hundreds of kilometres on foot through the forests, researching the diet, range and distribution of these elusive elephants.
The density of the forests makes sightings of these creatures rare which is why part of Gareth’s study involved the sampling of elephant dung to determine the presence and numbers of elephants in the forests.
As we meandered through the forest, we came across fresh signs of feeding and droppings, which he estimated to be about 6 hours old, judging by the moisture content of the dung.
DNA analysis by conservation geneticist Lori S. Eggert from the University of Missouri-Columbia has revealed that there are at least five females within the population. In addition, Gareth’s fieldwork has provided evidence to suggest the presence of three bulls and two calves.
But despite Gareth’s research, park officials still say there is only one surviving elephant in the forests.
I asked Gareth why he describes the elephants as “secret” in his recent book “The Secret Elephants”.
“The view that this population is doomed to extinction has created a mystique around these elephants and because they are such masters of camouflage, very few people or even wildlife experts believed that there were any elephants left at all. But actually, these elephants have quietly been carrying on with their own lives”.
Although we didn’t have the luck to see an elephant, the thrill of coming so close to a creature that has managed to survive against such odds was a humbling experience.
Top: “The Matriarch”, believed by park authorities to be the last elephant in Knysna (Hylton Herd, 2008)
Bottom: One of the most notorious ivory hunters, PJ “Jungle Man” Pretorius, during a hunt in the Knsyna forests in the 1920s (Knysna Museum)