The Knysna Elephant

A Brief History of The Knysna Elephant

The Landmark Foundation’s Leopard and Predator Project is undertaken across the Eastern and Western Cape. One research site is the forest between George and Plettenberg bay. We placed camera traps at approximately 3.5 km apart throughout this forest in order to estimate leopard density and to establish biodiversity indices. We often get ‘by-catch’ of species which is important part of the data collection. One particular species was of great interest, we photographed a Knysna Elephant. These iconic animals have reached almost mythical status and have been the talks of myth and legend for ages, first by the local san people and then later by the first settlers who extensively harvested the forests to for timber. Much speculation abounds about the precise no of remaining elephants, but from our camera trap (set across 180 000ha of forest) data which ran for 18 months we appeared to capture the same one female elephant across the forest during the survey. While we hope we are wrong, a female elephant is never without her herd nearby. This image matches others taken over the last 12 years of a female with skew tusks. Thus the worst case scenario that only 1 lone matriarch still inhabits the forests may be true. This fact raises serious concerns about the future management of the last remaining forest Giant.

The following narrative is a brief history of the Knysna elephant over the last two centuries:

1860 Due to extensive ivory hunting in the forests, the Knysna forest elephant is officially protected by the government of the Cape.

1876 Surveys of the forest estimate there to be around 500 elephants remaining.

1908 Continual poaching and little in the way of law enforcement and protection has decimated the population to an estimated 20 individuals.

1920 A new survey is conducted revealing the presence of an estimated 12 individuals, confined to small patches of forests Later in the year 5 elephants are shot by a Major Pretorius thus leaving an estimated 7 individuals.

1951 an estimated 4-8 elephants remain.

1950’s &1960’s Several inconclusive surveys are conducted but outcomes are vague.

1968 Concerned with the lack of data the Eastern Cape Branch of the wildlife Society form an elephant working group and commission a survey this survey concluded an estimated population of 7-10 individuals

1970 Nick Carter a game warden with considerable elephant knowledge is commissioned to do a further Survey a population of 10 elephants is firmly established with a calf being born shortly after the survey. He thus concluded that the population had remained static for 50 years the Elephants were seen to be in equilibrium with their environment and were breeding normally. It was concluded that no further management actions were necessary.

1971 Forestry officials secretly shoot an old bull

1980 For a decade little is done about the elephants until in 1980 Forestry officials grimly announce that only 2 elephants remain a Cow and a calf

1981 An elephant working group is established to discuss and recommend management plans for the elephant, amongst other recommendations it was recommended to bring 4 elephants from the Addo Elephant National Park , these recommendations were overruled by the Government stating that it could not be responsible for the possible damage caused to infrastructure by elephant.

1982 Elephant Working Groups is officially disbanded

1986 Daleen Matthee’s famous book Circles in a forest (Kringe in die Bos) is published, this book becomes a best seller and gives impetus to the plight and conservation of the Knysna elephant raising interest by public

1990 Various organizations band together and request Government to revisit their stance on not introducing further elephant

1994 Three cows are brought from Kruger and released into a boma at Diepwalle, after which they are released into the forest. One Cow dies shortly after this from excessive roving after the matriarch. The remaining cows seem to move to farm pastures and do not inhabit the forests causing damage.

1999 The two young cow elephants are captured and moved to Shamwari

2002 Sightings suggest 3 elephants

2007 Fecal DNA analysis point at 5 remaining females but sightings and other evidence does not confirm this analysis

2015 18 months of Grid camera trapping of the forests by the Landmark Foundation reveals only 1 matriarch