By the early 1980’s the Forestry Department noticed fewer and fewer signs of elephant on their daily rounds. It was decided to scour all the reserves in the hope of locating a number of elephants.
In 1980, two surveys, six months apart, which involved 20 teams of 10 forestry personnel searching the elephant’s known habitat, concluded that there is only one adult cow and calf remaining.
In March 1981, Coert Geldenhuys and Julius Koen, together with two trackers, followed the tracks of the cow and calf from Diepwalle towards Buffelsnek. At the end of the first day (on 16 March), they saw the cow with an old bull in the area of Peerbos (between Buffelsnek and Diepwalle), but there was no sign of the calf. The next day, they went back to the point they left the search the previous day (the Uniondale-Knysna road) and again found the tracks of the cow and calf and heard them on a southern slope with a dense stand of tall tree ferns. They were chased by the cow and left the scene.
About two years later (1983), fern harvesters found the skeleton of an old cow that died of natural causes shortly before, to the south of the road (close to the road) that stretches west from the Diepwalle timber depot, past the Big Tree. The skeleton showed no signs of shot wounds, with the tusks still with the skeleton.
All this means that from 1980-1982 there were probably four elephants – one old bull, one old cow, one adult cow and one calf – when two thorough surveys showed the presence of only the adult cow and calf (C. Geldenhuys, personal communication, 4 February 2016; T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018).
In 1981, The Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Argus Newspaper Group were responsible for engineering the creation of the Elephant Working Group that was made up of 10 eminent people in relevant conservation bodies. The group met twice, at Knysna, in February and April 1981. Two main factors emerged in considering reasons for the decline in numbers:
- Harassment (being shot at by private landowners and poaching) and Restricted Habitat (the concept of the negative effect on health by being more limited to a variety of food than in earlier days). The Elephant Working Group considered various options for the future management of the elephants and after much consideration agreed that
- the Knysna elephants are not a distinct sub-species
- the Knysna forest is of prime importance for conservation
- the elephants should be conserved as part of the whole Knysna forest and fynbos ecosystem and
- that in order to increase the viability of the elephant herd the following steps should be taken: (1) suitable licks be put out since certain essential elements are lacking in the forest vegetation (2) sex of the calf to be determined (3) if the calf is a male that three Addo female calves be introduced (4) that certain private properties that are a threat be acquired by the State (5) a regular elephant monitoring programme and (6) to consolidate the existing forestry lands in the Knysna region to form one single large conservation area. However, the recommendation to introduce three young Addo elephants was turned down by the Department of Environmental Affairs in a press release issued in February 1982. On receipt of this depressing news, the local Wildlife Society organised a petition to test the feelings of local people and visitors on the question of saving the elephants. Over 4000 signatures were acquired indicating the strong local feeling that the Knysna elephants should survive. The petition was presented to the Minister of Parliament for the area but the hope was in vain when the Director General of Environmental Affairs sent a copy of an 8-page report emphasising the difficulties which could be encountered and reasons why other elephants should not be introduced. The report particularly emphasises the damage that would be caused to the forest if a section were fenced off as an elephant reserve even though only partial fencing was recommended by the Elephant Working Group. The report also went into detail regarding the problems that might arise and lists various reasons why additional elephants should not be introduced into the forest. The Wildlife Society believed that the outright prevention of acceptance of the Elephant Working Groups’ thorough recommendations was based on fear that the State would be held responsible for the damage to private property which might be caused by introduced elephants. With wild indigenous animals occurring in a natural habitat (e.g. the present elephants in the Knysna forest) there is no legal obligation to prevent damage. Where the Department creates a potentially dangerous situation by translocating elephants from their natural habitat to a new area, the Department would be held responsible for compensation.
- The report concluded by indicating that the Knysna and Tsitsikamma forest areas be protected and managed by the Department for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations (Landmark Foundation, 2015). In 1981, the local Wildlife Society offered a small reward for any evidence leading to the discovery of elephants, other than the three (or four) already known to exist, or the bones of dead animals. There were no takers (Watson, 2002). The Elephant Working Group was officially disbanded in March 1982 (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
In 1982, Buck Reid, a forestry official at Gouna, reported encountering a mature elephant and a young animal (probably a cow and calf pair) which ran alongside his bakkie in the plantation. It is quite possible that this same pair was seen 5 years later (T. Stehle, personal communication, 31 January 2018).
The official monitoring of the Knysna elephants was initiated between 1983 and 1987. Over the next thirty years the data revealed a gradual shift of the herd’s range. Their range began to shift westwards and more into the mountain catchment areas, further away from the highway and coastal towns (T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018; Van der Vyver, 2014).
In the winter of 1983, fern harvesters stumbled upon a virtually complete skeleton of an old elephant bull among a patch of ferns in the Harkerville Forest south of the N2, not far from Garden of Eden – see Appendix ‘O’. The skull had old bullet wounds, but it was assumed it had died from old age from the condition of its molars (it was badly worn). According to Dave Reynell this bull probably died between two to three years before it was found. This skeleton was restored and mounted by a taxidermist and stood in front of the Knysna Tourism Bureau for quite a number of years, after which it resorted back to the Department and eventually to SANParks. It is now in the Forest Legends Museum at Diepwalle – see Appendix ‘P’. According to Reynell, he was able to link this skeleton to Carter’s reference of the largest bull he saw during his year-long survey – Champion (D. Reynell, personal communication, 18 January 2018 and 15 February 2018; T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018).
In 1986, hope was rekindled when local author Dalene Matthee published a book, “Circles in a Forest” which became a best-seller both locally and internationally and prescribed as a set book for school which created understanding and appreciation of the forest and its elephants. In addition the television programme 50/50 screened a programme on the elephants which re-interested the public. This allowed the local Wildlife Society to mobilise its members and the public into action. All this public interest and continued pressure by the local Wildlife Society finally resulted in the Minister of Environmental Affairs in 1987 announcing in Parliament that he would agree to the introduction of young elephants should it prove feasible and realistic (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
In March 1987, a group of hikers stumbled on two elephants- a mature cow and her teenage companion (many people speculate that it was a young bull), presumably the same mother and child seen in 1980 and 1982 – see Appendix ‘Q’ (Mackay, 1996).
Research done by Koen (1984) regarding the feeding (diet) of the Knysna elephants, and Koen et al. (1988) regarding the macro nutrients in plants available to the Knysna, Addo and Kruger elephants, concluded that:
- The main items in the elephant’s diet are: ferns, trees – principally Acacia melanoxylon (alien blackwood from Australia), Rapanea melanophloeos (Cape beech), and Pterocelastrus tricuspidatus (candlewood) and a variety of fynbos plants. The fynbos grasses are nutritionally inferior to the grasslands of the woodland/savanna ecosystem where grass can at times form 80 or even 90% of the elephant’s diet, especially after rains when the grass is green and sweet and has a high protein content.
- In the Knysna forest area, browse (leaves) is nutritionally better than grass but not all the plants are available to the elephants. Because of high levels of ‘secondary compounds’ in certain leaves, such species cannot be digested properly. These chemical compounds react with the digestive juices and render them inactive. In other words, the elephant suffers from indigestion.
- There appeared to be a phosphorus deficiency in the forest and an excess of calcium. The historical southern Cape elephant population’s range was confined to the forest parts around Knysna as a result of human settlement and agricultural development, and because of this the elephants were eating foods with lower levels of phosphorus than in other areas where elephants exist. A lack of phosphorus could be a factor in the apparent lack of reproduction as well as a lower calf survival rate, while an excess of calcium makes matters worse by inhibiting the intake of phosphorus.
- Analysis of the plants favoured by the Knysna elephants showed them to be less nutritious than the food plants of the Addo elephants.
The introduction of young elephants was turned down in November 1988 after further investigations revealed that the operation would be disproportionately costly. The Minister released a statement indicating that due to the changing and inadequate habitat it would be unwise to enlarge the elephant population in the area (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
In January 1989, the Forestry Department announced that a new calf had been born (Mackay, 1996).
In 1989, the skeleton of a cow (see Appendix ‘R’) was found in indigenous state forest just east of Geo Parkes’ property Oudebrand, which is reached by the road passing by the Big Tree westwards into Parkes’ property, which had been a regular haunt of the elephants. This elephant was dated by carbon dating of its remains (there were still remains of its skin) to have died in about 1986 (T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018).
In 1990, Alson Jansen, forest guard at Diepwalle, reported he saw a cow (many speculate that it could have been a young bull) and a year-old young calf close to the Uniondale road between Big Tree and Ysterhoutrug picnic site (T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018; Watson, 2002).
The decline in elephant numbers caused increasing public concern. There was growing support for the idea of introducing elephants from elsewhere to establish a viable breeding population. This resulted in the Publicity Association of Knysna, the Wildlife Society and the Department of Forestry asking the Rhino and Elephant Foundation to become involved. The Rhino and Elephant Foundation held a meeting with the Minister in August 1990 in which it was asked that the Minister’s decision not to reintroduce elephants be reconsidered in light of recent changes
- international criticism
- cheaper electrified elephant-proof fencing
- birth of another Knysna elephant calf.
The Minister instructed that a committee investigate the issue in view of recent developments. On 8 November 1990 the committee found that
- the Knysna forests are not an ideal habitat
- damage caused by introduced elephants would be the responsibility of the Forestry Department
- major private landowners were against the project and would claim damages
- fencing of a reserve will be viewed in a negative light and be too costly
- elephant reintroduction would receive a positive international reaction and
- the people of Knysna are in favour of the project going ahead.
The committee concluded that the best solution would be to introduce a limited number of elephants providing the cost of claims against the Department be recovered by the Department of Environmental Affairs or that the elephants are insured (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
Dr. Armin Seydack’s Ph.D dissertation (completed in December 1990) on the bushpig populations of the Southern Cape forests and those of the Eastern Cape, which is equally applicable to the Knysna elephant, reveals that the low-nutrient environment, and especially the imbalance between protein and carbohydrates in the forest nutrition, has had the physiological effects that the elephants’ metabolism was cued for a long life and large body and tusks, but not for reproduction.
In the Addo, with high nutrient status, it is just the other way round, strong reproduction, high population turn-over, smaller body and tusks and shorter life spans (D. Reynell, personal communication, 19 January 2018; Seydack, 1990; T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018).
In April 1991, Gert Kotze, then Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, announced the approval of the project as long as claims by private landowners was covered by insurance by an organisation other than Environmental Affairs. The Rhino and Elephant Foundation took over this responsibility and, after 2 years of securing indemnity, the Minister of Environment and Water Affairs announced on 26 April 1994 that the project could finally go ahead and that two elephants donated by the Kruger National Park would be introduced into the Knysna Forest. The Mazda Wildlife Fund undertook to pay for the transport of the elephants (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
Determining the sex of the elephants to be imported was the next challenge as the last proper survey was in 1980, and the last time two elephants were seen together was in early 1990, presumably a calf and young bull association. However, Theo Stehle states that he doubts this young bull and calf association, but has no evidence. Fact is that a cow had always featured during these years, and could be the same cow that has repeatedly been sighted and photographed over the following twenty years (T. Stehle, personal communication, 22 January 2018). The young bull would be the key to the success of the experiment, and the sex for the newcomers was decided on both being female that would be rescued from the Kruger winter cull. Marion Garai, a zoologist appointed to coordinate the transfer recommended that, as elephants were highly social, that three be introduced and the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry unhesitatingly gave his consent. On 15 July 1994, three young female elephants were released into a boma at Diepwalle after more than 13 years of debate, discussion and research. The period after the arrival of the young elephants brought some severe weather and the bitter cold caused misery to the young cows (Discover Sedgefield South Africa, n.d; Landmark Foundation, 2015).
On the 20th of September 1994 the three Kruger elephants were set free into the surrounding forest.
As late as October 1994, an enquiry was directed at the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry as to the number of Knysna elephants, which caused doubts to arise in the Department as to the true state of the current population. The Department mounted an intensive elephant search by forest workers walking two hundred yards apart through the entire core area of the usual home range. This produced the alarming conclusion that there was only one elephant left – a mature cow known as the ‘Matriarch’, aged about fifty-four.
The 1994 survey was the most thorough one could have conducted in the State forest, but it excluded important parts of the elephants’ home range in the Parkes’ forest adjoining, e.g. Oudebrand. Theo Stehle has a strong feeling based on the many sightings by the two Diepwalle expert trackers, that there was at least another animal beside the ‘Matriarch’, which was very elusive (could have been the calf born in 1970). It could have been in the Parkes forest during the survey (T. Stehle, personal communication, 22 January 2018).
With only one elephant found during the survey, the Department thus stated that the Knysna elephant population was ‘functionally’ extinct (Landmark Foundation, 2015; News24, 2002; Watson, 2002). Once again there was this bewildering vanishing of elephants which meant that no breeding could occur as planned (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
The three young elephants joined up with the ‘Matriarch’ only for two limited periods: 8 October-25 November 1994 and 21-28 June 1995. The smallest of the three died on 12 October 1994 due to stress-related pneumonia (Seydack et al, 2000). They foraged in the fynbos island Petrus Brand on fynbos and black wattle for a while, and due to no boundary fence, they walked out of the state forest east onto farmlands which they returned to repeatedly. Fortunately farmers in the area were tolerant of the young elephants. Some uncaring people harassed the youngsters causing them to wander far from their known territory northwards into the mountains east of De Vlugt. Interestingly during their extensive wanderings on the pasture lands east of Diepwalle the young elephants rarely damaged fences until 1996 when damage to a fence was reported which was enough to scare insurance companies who indicated that if not addressed claims would not be accommodated (Landmark Foundation, 2015; T. Stehle, personal communication, 22 January 2018; Van der Merwe, 2002).
In October 1995, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry issued an overview of the elephant relocation project and indicated that they were satisfied with the reintroduction project up until December 1994 (it was at this point that the dismal news was uncovered that only one remaining indigenous elephant survived).
The overview presented various options for consideration at a meeting held on 5 October 1995 by Cape Nature Conservation, Rhino and Elephant Foundation, the Wildlife Society, du Toit Game services, and other interested parties.
Option 1: was to bring in some more elephants with a view to establish a viable population which the Elephant Working Group had recommended with continual top-ups of the population. The viability of this option had now weakened as a result of (a) further confirmations of the habitat problem (b) loss of the Knysna elephant gene pool (c) only one remaining Knysna elephant and (d) that the long term prospects of success had diminished.
Option 2: aimed at introducing some more young elephants and replenishing these with elephants to replace the ones that died, in the knowledge that the project would never be ecologically viable. Forestry would be prepared to continue with this option if fully funded by those supporting it (i.e. the people of Knysna).
Option 3: was to maintain the status quo and
Option 4: supported the removal of the relocated elephants either immediately or when problems arose. Forestry decided to support options 3 and 4 (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
Essop et al. (1996) genetically analysed the Kruger and Addo elephant populations and by extrapolating the Addo results to the Knysna population, concluded that the Knysna and Kruger elephants are of the same species, Loxodonta africana (Garden Route National Park: State of knowledge, 2014).
The two introduced elephants left the mountain area east of De Vlugt and wandered to the Wittedrift Valley where they started causing considerable damage to infrastructure in citrus orchards. Plans were made together with SANParks to capture and relocate the elephants on the farm, but as soon as these plans had been made, the elephants took off north again and started to cause havoc in vegetable lands on a farm adjacent to the Kransbos Plantation. Plans were again put into place to capture and relocate the elephants. They were captured and translocated to Shamwari Game Reserve in July 1999 where elephants were already established (Landmark Foundation, 2015; T. Stehle, personal communication, 22 January 2018).
Sightings of the Knysna elephant had declined considerably. Between 1997 and 2000 no sightings were recorded, and it was believed that the ‘Matriarch’ might have died (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
This article compliments of Ryno Joubert – firstname.lastname@example.org