The Southernmost Free Roaming Elephants in the World
Based on an estimated 3 000 elephants that may have roamed the Cape Floristic Region in pre-colonial times, it is assumed that about 1 000 elephants occupied the Outeniqua-Tsitsikamma (southern Cape) area. Over 300 years ago, the Knysna elephant population formed part of a continuous population that ranged from the Cape Peninsula to Limpopo (Garden Route National Park: State of knowledge, 2014). To the nomadic Bushmen, who hunted them with poisoned arrows, elephant meat was a staple food. Elephant skins were hung over their rudimentary huts as extra protection against the elements (Van der Merwe, 2002). The Hottentots (Khoi) also hunted down elephants with their spears. They used fire to drive the elephants into pits with stakes inside where they would be driven into and then killed with spears (T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018). Then came the early settlers from about the middle of the eighteenth century. Relentlessly the stream of invading European farmers and hunters pushed the elephants into their forest retreats. (Van der Merwe, 2002).
In November 1497, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama saw herds of elephants in Mossel Bay (The Baldwin Project, n.d.).
In 1775, the Swedish traveller Andreas Sparrman recorded that elephants were, by being shot at continually, in a great measure expelled from the ‘Houtniquas’ (the area between the Great Brak River to the west and Keurbooms River to the east), and have taken refuge on the other side of the Keurbooms River in the woody and almost entirely unexplored country of the Tsitsikamma. Elephants also withdrew into other woody parts of the country where they are difficult to find, or to the country beyond the Great Fish River. For many years the Tsitsikamma forests were one of the last, secret places for a relatively large number of elephants. Two Hottentots (Khoi) attempted to penetrate the Tsitsikamma forest from the ‘Houtniquas’ side. After ten to twelve exhausting days the men had to turn back, the forests had defeated them. They perceived a great number of elephants, along with several elephant pathways which extended from north to south in the forest, from the ocean north to the mountains outside the forest (Sparrman, 1785; Patterson, 2009; P. Caveney, personal communication, 24 January 2018).
In 1782, the French naturalist, Francois le Vaillant, spent nearly six months in ‘Outeniqualand’ (the 200-kilometre strip of land between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountain ranges and the Indian Ocean) to catalogue its plants and animals, its fishes and its insects. He shot many game, including elephants, and added dozens of birds to his collection (Joubert, 2017).
Despite being intensively hunted, the Knysna elephants had a fearsome reputation. Lodewyk Prins was thrown from his horse and trampled by a wounded elephant bull in 1790. This incident was but one of many hunters who died in the quest for ivory and adventure (Van der Merwe, 2002).
Journals and letters written between 1820 and 1840 frequently referred to delays between Port Elizabeth and George arising from herds of elephants blocking the road (Mackay, 1996).
After 1830, there were hardly any elephants living in the Cape Province except for some herds in the areas of Addo and Knysna (Douglas-Hamilton, 1975).
Between the 1860’s and 1880’s elephants moving between the Outeniqua Mountains and the Tsitsikamma forest were hunted extensively for their ivory as well as for sport (Patterson, 2009).
In 1860, due to extensive ivory hunting in the forests, the Knysna elephant was officially protected by the government of the Cape (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
In 1867, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, came to Knysna on a private visit. He and his hunting party killed two elephants and probably fatally wounded at least two other members of a herd of sixteen – which stood in an open hollow between Gouna Forest and Jonkersburg. At one instance during the hunt, when the elephants refused to emerge from the forest to be shot by royal bullets, a Petrus Stroebel was employed by the Duke to go in on a horse to entice one of the herd out by making rude noises at it (Carter, 1971).
In 1868, Captain Christopher Harison, the Conservator of Forests, and road builder Thomas Bain explored the Tsitsikamma forests. They estimated that at least two hundred elephants inhabited the area (Patterson, 2009).
Disaster struck ‘Outeniqualand’ early in February 1869. Bush fires had started all over the area during several weeks of exceptionally hot weather. On the 9th of February a hot Bergwind from the north swept the fires through the mountains, gorges and lower coastal plateau. From Mossel Bay in the west to Humansdorp in the east the country was ablaze. One branch of the fire swept down a gorge and raced through the hills towards Knysna. Then, by a miracle, the wind changed and saved the town from certain destruction. The fire failed to penetrate the belt of main forests along the upper coastal plateau, for fire seldom penetrates deep into moist forest (only the margins/edges of the main forests were burned). Small patches of mountain forests, forests along rivers, forested valleys and dry coastal forest (scrub forest) were, however, destroyed (Joubert, 2018). The effect of the ‘Great Fire’ on the forest wildlife: The smaller mammals, such as the bushbuck and bluebuck must have suffered considerably, but the elephants, with their intelligence, size and strength, would have been able to keep the blaze at a distance, always provided that they did not panic. The youngest calves would have been in the greatest danger, and it is possible that they would have formed the bulk of any elephant casualties. They might not have been able to keep ahead of the fire for its whole ranging distance (Carter, 1971).
During the late 1860’s the Thesen family decided to emigrate from Norway, escaping from bad economic conditions, and intended to go to New Zealand. On the 16th November, 1869 the Albatros I (their 117 ton two-masted schooner) docked in Table Bay, after what must have been a testing 78 day sail. Barely a week later the schooner left Cape Town, after effecting necessary repairs and restocking provisions, on the intimidating 12000 mile journey to New Zealand. The family encountered the notorious Cape storms off the coast of Cape Agulhas and were forced to limp back to Table Bay, the Albatros I having been severely battered in the storm. The extent of the damage to the Albatros I forced the family to sell their cargo to finance the required repairs. The local Norwegian Consul suggested that the family cash in on the dearth of cargo ships servicing the Cape coast. Hans, a young family member, undertook a number of exploratory trips to various coastal ports, including Knysna, over the ensuing months. Hans persuaded the more senior family members to accompany him on a trip to Knysna. So impressed were they with the area that the Thesens abandoned their Antipodean plans and opted to settle in Knysna. The Albatros I duly docked in Knysna on 8th April, 1870 (Bamboo, 2015).
They built up a great timber industry over the years, including considerable diversification into timber by-products and they still owned very large tracts of indigenous forest, and plantations of exotics, on the land north of the main road to Plettenberg Bay. Through these lands the Knysna elephants roamed freely at certain times of the year, but these, and all other wildlife, were strictly protected by the enlightened policy of the company. This benevolent attitude together with one similar, adopted by their rivals, G. Parkes Limited, was largely responsible for the continuing existence of the elephants (Carter, 1971).
In 1874, Captain Harison suggested to the Cape government that it was time to protect the surviving elephants and buffalo. The government turned down the suggestion as frivolous, and the carnage continued as licenses were issued freely to people who had a gun and would travel (Joubert, 2018).
In November 1876, Harison did a survey and estimated that between 400 and 500 elephants existed in ‘Outeniqualand’ (Patterson, 2009; Van der Merwe, 2002).
According to J.F.V. Phillips (South African botanist), in around 1880 the elephants roamed throughout the forest region commencing immediately west of George and extending to Witte Els Bosch in the Humansdorp Division. From references found in early correspondence and information supplied by reliable old woodcutters, it was clear that a secret ivory trade was flourishing. Tusks were reported to have been smuggled out of the region in wagon-loads or ship-loads of timber. The bulk appear to have been sent to the Transvaal. Half-a-crown per tusk was paid to the hunters. For such a small piece of silver were giants of the forest destroyed (Mackay, 1996).
In 1881, the last two elephants (a young bull and larger older bull) in the Tsitsikamma were shot by Daniel Barnardo. These two elephants roamed the area between the mountains and the coastal forests of Tsitsikamma. One day in 1881, after tracking the elephants for hours, Barnardo came across the two bulls together and he killed the young bull. The large bull, however, managed to escape. Very early one morning in 1881, the road construction foreman sighted the large bull elephant crossing the road that was in the process of being established between the Keurbooms River and up to Blouleliesvlei. The foreman immediately sent a message to Barnardo. Thereafter Barnardo immediately checked his elephant gun, packed his axe in his leather bag, and went to the place where the elephant had crossed the road. As Barnardo followed the tracts and signs of the older bull (the last elephant in the Tsitsikamma) he wondered why it still walked the land where so many of its kind had been killed. Other elephants of this area had long ago moved away into the mountains, some, it was said, reaching the Sundays River, near Addo. Others had moved inland and crossed the Keurbooms River up in the mountains. From time to time, they roamed in the Knysna forests and also those forests near the town of George. But this one bull remained. Barnardo eventually tracked down this bull and killed it late one afternoon (on the third day) in a kloof in the shadow of the mountain. After he had killed the elephant the evening before, darkness had come quickly and he did not have much time to inspect the body of the bull. The elephant had fallen on its right side. His tusks, though thick were short, both having snapped more than a decade before. Barnardo removed the bull’s stubby yellow tusks with his axe. He must have worked fast because by the early afternoon he was seen with tusks on his shoulders, walking on the new road being made between Keurbooms and Blouleliebos (Patterson, 2009).
In 1885, a C. F. Osborne had prospected the area on the west side of the Knysna River and had found alluvial gold – the first struck in the Cape. In May 1886, Millwood was thrown open; gold was discovered in reef-form in the quartzite-veins above the creeks, and prospecting moved from the rivers up into the mountains. In 1887 Millwood was officially proclaimed a goldfield. Millwood became a small town – hotels, a bank, post office and shops sprung up. About four hundred people lived in the town and another six hundred in the surrounding forests. The impact on the wildlife of the area, especially on the elephants, can be imagined without difficulty. Whereas previously they had encountered hunting man, the enemy, all over the forests but in comparatively small numbers, now there was, as it might have seemed to them, a blitzkrieg emanating from a concentrated area. Ivory in those days was always profitable and when the much-heralded gold began to fade out, many prospectors must have used their firearms to shoot meat for the pot and ivory for the bank. No one will ever know how many elephants were killed for profit or in self-defence, but there is no doubt that the number was considerable. Fortunately, the promised massive gold-fields never materialised and Millwood became a ghost town almost overnight as prospectors left for the Witwatersrand (Carter, 1971).
Since 1887, the general belief, also among some scientists, was that the Knysna elephants are among the biggest elephants in the world. This belief is based purely on anecdote and by erroneous and over-inflated measurements by the hunters themselves, and passed on via literature. Incidentally, one of these hunters, whose specimen measurements shrunk after later re-measurements, was Major Pretorius, who was granted a license to shoot a Knysna elephant in 1920 to prove that they were a subspecies and larger than normal (Garden Route National Park: State of knowledge, 2014).
In 1902, it was officially admitted that the herd was reduced to less than fifty (Watson, 2002).
The Knysna elephants’ taxonomic status has been a topic of debate since the early 1900s when Lydekker (1907) classified them as a subspecies named Elephas africanus toxotis, based on comparisons of ear-shape between Knysna and Addo specimens. After Lydekker’s publication, it was revealed that his museum specimen, labelled as a Knysna elephant, was in fact an Addo specimen (Garden Route National Park: State of knowledge, 2014).
This article compliments of Ryno Joubert – firstname.lastname@example.org