In 1908, elephants were proclaimed as Royal Game. Thus they were protected from being hunted by all except the British royalty. Fortunately no further Royals passed by (Watson, 2002).
However, it is a well-known fact that you cannot protect a species merely by declaring it to be protected. Because poachers usually come from the more ignorant classes, and quite often they will simply not have heard of the decree. Or if they are a bit more educated they will ignore the edict because they think they are clever enough not to be found out. Or again they may be in the really commanding position of knowing all about the countryside and its law enforcement officers, to such as degree that they can be sure of dodging them through being aware of all their habits and movements. In the Knysna forests there were in fact no officers of any description whose especial care was that of the wild life of the vast area.
There were indeed, the forestry officers themselves, but they were at a distinct disadvantage, if they were ever able to take time off from the immense plantations in order to attend game. This was because the poachers came from that class of people which lives in and around the forest and, apart from having a distrust of all authority on principle, formed a close-knit social group which would combine against the intrusive enquires of an outsider. Also the principle of “live and let live” is bound to carry a lot of weight when one man in lonely authority has to deal with a group of unscrupulous forest workers, who have lived all their lives in the district, and are probably all related by blood ties.
All this means that, although the Knysna elephants were declared Royal Game, there was nobody who made sure that they stayed alive to be Royal Game or its successive equivalent (Carter, 1971).
There were just thirteen known animals when war broke out in 1914. The herd bounced back to about seventeen during the war (Watson, 2002).
In 1920, Major Pretorius sought and was given permission to kill one Knysna elephant to supposedly investigate whether they were of the same species or a sub-species of the Addo elephant. Five animals died during this bungled hunt, later called ‘the Pretorius massacre’ – see Appendix ‘A’. A total of two bulls, two calves, and at least one cow were killed. Five killed out of a herd of seven, from a population of no more than seventeen animals. Making Pretorius the butcher who tore the heart out of the last two remaining Cape elephant herds – In 1919, he shot and killed about one hundred and twenty elephants in the Addo, with only between eleven and sixteen animals remaining (Watson, 2002). For the following years, the elephants almost completely avoided the Millwood portion of the Knysna forests because of the massacre that took place there (Patterson, 2009). In 1969, two old bull elephants re-visited Millwood for the first time in 10 years (Carter, 1971).
In an article in the South African Journal of Science for November 1925, J.F.V. Phillips of the Forest Research Station, Diepwalle, gave the following information based on records collected by him and on his own personal observations while investigating the ecological and silvicultural problems of the Knysna forests:
By the year 1925, it was believed that only twelve elephants remained and they confined themselves mainly to relatively small areas of forest. The elephants avoid, for very considerable periods, localities where they have been molested or where their fellow-creatures have been killed or have died. They favour well-defined paths when moving from one area to another. These paths are usually along ridges and always cross valleys and river-beds by the easiest route (this skill of the elephants has been invaluable to foresters who have frequently followed elephant paths when making tracks and roads. The road through the Bloukrans Pass followed an elephant track).
The elephant acts to some extent as an agent for seed dispersal. However, this is entirely accidental. The fruiting branch of Virgilia oroboides for example, with its dry pods and small hard seeds, has no more attraction for the elephants than a non-fruiting branch.
Regarding breeding, Mr. Phillips wrote that “as several calves have either died or been killed within the last three years and, as there are at present two comparatively young animals in the herd, breeding would seem to be progressing normally. The calves killed have been victims of the roughness and clumsiness of the adults, which have either pushed or pulled trees or branches upon their offspring by accident.” (Mackay, 1996)
During the middle 1950s there were about ten Knysna elephants remaining. The herd included an adult bull with a broken left tusk known as Aftand, an adult cow who lost calves in 1937 and 1942, a young bull with hairy ears and a naked tail who was very quiet, another adult bull with a broken tusk, just like Aftand, and also very suspicious of people. He was known as Booytjie. There was also a cow nobody could see clearly, she stayed with her calf in the deepest forest. She was known as Spook, and her calf as Spooktjie (Spokie). There was another young couple (bull and cow) with a calf that kept to the old forest at Lelievlei, and tracks of another big bull was seen with feet so big they must have been more than five feet around (Watson, 2002).
In 1963, Korneels Jantjies, a woodcutter, was the last human killed by one of the Knysna elephants, he was killed on Veldman’s Pad (Carter, 1971).
The Eastern Province Branch of the then named Wild Life Protection and Conservation Society of South Africa (now known as the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Southern Africa – WESSA) was interested in conducting a survey of the Knysna elephants as their number, ages and sexes were unknown. Between the 8th and 18th January 1968 (eleven days) three members of the Society conducted a rapid, exploratory “survey” in “an attempt to establish some facts about the Knysna herd beyond the knowledge of its mere existence” (Knysna Elephant Symposium, 1968). In their summary of results they commented that: “In all, six elephants are believed to have been seen, and a seventh one, a well known bull with a broken left tusk, is known to exist”. The composition of these six elephants was believed to be one group of three (consisting of a prime adult bull, a prime adult cow and a well grown young elephant of at least ten years), another group of two (consisting of a small cow and a half grown elephant), and one lone adult bull with a broken right tusk (Knysna Elephant Symposium, 1968).
On 1 March 1968, The Wild Life Protection and Conservation Society met to discuss the status and fate of the Knysna elephant at a Knysna Elephant Symposium. This was the first time a serious look was given to the conservation of the elephants. It was unanimously agreed that before any Conservation plan could be discussed, more information was required on the subject, and a long term survey should be conducted under the leadership of a person experienced with elephants (Carter, 1970; D. Reynell, personal communication, 18 January 2018; T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018).
A month or two later, Major Bruce Kinloch, former Chief Game Warden of Uganda and Tanganyika, did a quick ten-day survey on behalf of the Department of Nature Conservation. He was surprised that the population of elephants in Knysna had not changed in fifty years of “strict legal protection” and thought that there might be ten animals (D. Reynell, personal communication, 19 January 2018; Watson, 2002).
In 1968, a young calf (bull) of under six months had been found dead on the east-west track between Groot Eiland and Klein Eiland, in the Harkerville Forest. It had been crushed between two logs. One tree having been pulled down in the search for food had caught the youngster and broken its back – see Appendix ‘I’. Young elephant calves are delicate creatures and about a third of them never reach their first birthday, but the manner of this little bull’s death was probably unusual for the Knysna group. This death explained the consistent small numbers of the group: the bulls were jealous of the calves and were assassinating them. There had been signs of panic-stricken activity after the accident: trampled footmarks all over the place and tusk marks on the tree trunk that held down the little body. Perhaps the mother and aunt actually lifted the massive bole, but when the baby failed to respond and crawl away, let it drop again. One thing was certain: it was nearly eighteen months before any elephants again visited that fatal area with its traumatic memories of death and separation (Carter, 1971).
By the end of 1968 it was decided that the only way to get to the bottom of the matter was to finance a full-blown, year-long survey of the Knysna elephants (D. Reynell, personal communication, 18 January 2018). In late January 1969, the local Wildlife Protection and Conservation Society commissioned professional game warden, Nick Carter, who had worked in both Kenya and the Kruger National Park, to make a far more thorough study. Two local trackers (Aapie Stroebel and his son, Anthony), who worked for Messrs Thesen Limited, were added to the survey team. The terms of reference were:
- To ascertain numbers and composition of the herd
- To observe feeding habits and migrations
- If possible, to find the reason for low breeding rate or lack of fertility
- To establish whether the animals are a subspecies or variant of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana)
- To make recommendations for future conservation.
- The survey would last from February 1969 to January 1970 (Carter, 1970, Mackay, 1996).
The following main points were established during Carter’s survey:
There were at least ten elephants in the forest and probably no more. They comprised:
Male (Adam/ Aftand) – aged over 45. An even-tempered animal with remarkable traffic sense and completely blasé of human sounds and activity. The most photogenic of the group and has the largest tusks (left 60 pounds, right 70 pounds, approx.), with the left tusk broken. This bull is a loner and is never seen with other elephants. He roams the areas’ of Brackenhill, Garden of Eden and Die Poort (parallel along the National Road), and sometimes cross and re-cross the National Road, but mostly at night, and invisibly.
- Female (Blackberry) – aged around 10, usually accompanied by a young bull and a cow who may be her mother.
- Female (Elderberry) – aged approx. 20, seen frequently with a large bull, possibly pregnant, dangerous and aggressive. Could have been the mother of the calf which died in 1968.
- Female (fully adult) – believed to be the mother or aunt of Blackberry. Only glimpsed once or twice.
- Male (young adult/ fully adult, known as Champion) – aged over 25, and the largest of the group. Standing 11’3” at the shoulder with two tusks estimated at between 50 and 60 pounds each side. Frequently seen in the company of Elderberry.
- Male (Jasper/ Booytjie) – aged 40 or more, a quiet but suspicious animal with hairy and tattered ears, and an almost hairless tail. Right tusk has had point broken off at some time. Never seem to wander far from Hairy Ears.
- Male (Hairy Ears) – aged around 50, a quiet animal with hairy and tattered ears, hairless tail and a broken right tusk. Never seem to wander far from Jasper/ Booytjie.
- Calf (unknown sex, known as Youngberry) – aged under five, kept in the depths of the forest by its mother as a rule. Spotted once by the Survey Team and on other occasions by reliable independent witnesses, in the indigenous forest above Brackenhill. Spoor measured in Harkerville on the Klein Eiland track.
- Female (fully adult) – the mother of Youngberry, and keeps to the loneliest of forest with her calf, aggressive and has been known to charge.
- Male (young adult) – usually moves around with Blackberry. Only seen clearly twice in Harkerville.
- Calf (unknown sex) – Born just after the survey, in March 1970 – for more information see Appendix ‘J’.
The population is spread across several small groups and several of the older bulls are loners. The elephants move about the forest, the younger animals moving furthest and most often, sometimes travelling ten miles at a time. Several members of the population frequently cross the National Road at the Garden of Eden (except for Aftand who seem to cross the road anywhere between Brackenhill and Die Poort) and spend time in the coastal forests of Harkerville – especially during the winter months. Certain members of the population spend most (all) of their time in Harkerville whilst others just visit periodically. Three elephants, known as the “Blackberry Group”, frequently raid the vegetable gardens and fruit trees on the eastern boundary of Harkerville in the area of Koffiehoek at night (they never left Harkerville during the survey). During every winter season some elephants come down from the north to gather in Brackenhill, in Thesen’s plantations, for mysterious elephant ceremonies and meetings.
The elephants appear to feed on most species of plants found in the forests, ranging from grass and fern roots to trees. They do not feed on gums, pines or yellowwoods. The forest provide a rich diet for them. The Knysna elephants seldom use the tusks for pushing over trees. They loosen strips of bark with them, which are then torn off by the trunk, but in the main they use them for digging. They are great excavators. The digging is done to search for roots and tubers, of which they seem to be fond, but for all this their tusks are no bigger on average than any of the Kruger Park of Kenya elephants who do not dig so often.
There is no discernible evidence of low fertility in the group. Their breeding rate appears normal for a small group. Their numbers have not increased (remained static for 50 years) as they appear to have been killed by illegal shooting. There is quite satisfactory evidence of the shooting of at least three elephants in the past 30 years. One, a cow, had been shot near Diepwalle and had made its way to Fisantehoek (then known as Kaffirskop), before it died in a valley below the Forestry sub-station. The remains of another were lying on the edge of the forest near a place known as Dirk se Eiland (the bones of these were never found). The bones of a half grown animal shot just after the war (1946) was found in the middle of the Gouna Forest at the top of a hill. Carter (1971) mentioned two methods by which the Knysna elephants could have been poached/killed: “There would be no large scale killing, not even anything like that last legal shoot of Pretorius, but I reckoned that every so often, probably at a week-end, poachers would come into the forests, literally from every direction. They would arrive to shoot bushbuck or birds, perhaps, and once in a while this fraternity would meet an elephant, by luck or judgement, and would let rip with their light rifles from a safe distance. One bullet in the belly, and the animal would make off to die unseen, or if it was found by the shooters, would be stripped of its tusks and left to rot in its hiding place, unknown to anyone else. The other method of poaching would be performed by small holders who would shoot at night, and at random, towards those noises on the edge of the forest which threatened their gardens – also known as pot shots. And the results would be the same”. Protection is not afforded by declaring them protected unless there is an appointed official to enforce this.
The Knysna elephants are apparently the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and do not represent a subspecies or variant. However, their habits appear to have become modified for existence in the forests. They are large elephants and the most southerly group of elephants in the world.
They could see remarkably well. It would seem that one must stalk them in the same manner as one stalked antelope, using all available cover.
To provide maximum protection they must be enclosed in a special reserve in the Harkerville area of the Knysna forests. The most urgent requirement is the appointment of a resident Game Warden with assistants. Secondly, small private properties that adjoin the forests to the east should be protected by an elephant resistant fence approximately five miles long. Finally, the Harkerville forest should be totally enclosed to form a special reserve approximately 5000 morgen in extent. The sea and steep gorges form a natural barrier on the southern and eastern sides. The length of the elephant proof fencing required is between 9 and 9½ miles depending on the exact line of the fence.
In recent years the elephants have been threatened on the grounds of their danger to human life and damage to private property. However, damage to private property by the elephants has been slight and they have become used to the proximity of people and normally just move off quietly into the forest when approached (Carter, 1970; Carter, 1971).
The survey was scheduled to end with a symposium, again under the aegis of the Wildlife Society, and many learned bodies were to be invited to discuss the report and its possible implementation. However, before this well-advertised symposium could take place another meeting occurred. At this meeting (in October 1970) Carter’s report was “discussed”. This meeting, according to Carter, was not a discussion but turned out to be the opportunity for a tedious monologue by a representative of the Forestry Department. The representative, a gentleman, was concerned with the indigenous forests in the Knysna area, and stated that the forests were capable of supporting only this handful of elephants, which was why their numbers remained low. Some curious statistics were produced that purported to prove this by comparison with work done in East Africa by other scientists on another project. This led to some sort of resolution being passed which was hostile to Carter’s report and recommended that the status quo should be maintained.
Armed with this at the ensuing Wildlife Society Symposium (in November 1970) the Forestry Department added fair promises of increased protection for the Knysna elephants. Thus the old status quo was safely maintained, and Carter’s report and recommendations were ignored.
All was quiet until a mature bull was secretly shot by senior officials near the national road east of Knysna in April 1971 (African Wildlife, 1974; Landmark Foundation, 2015).
On 4 April 1971, Aftand (45-50 years of age) was shot and killed in secret by employees of the Forestry Department. Aftand was a wild roaming animal and legally not the Department’s responsibility if it ventured outside state forest land. The elephants did not regard boundaries and moved in and out of the state forest, occasionally raiding smallholdings with fruit trees and vegetable gardens. However, the owners of the smallholdings, where the damage was done, held the Department responsible as they were regarded as forest animals, which they were not, but over time were driven into the forest by the people who populated the area around the forests. On the one hand there was the public who pestered the Department to get rid of the pest (Aftand was a rogue elephant, a lone bull), on the other there was the conservationist public with the Wildlife Society at the forefront, wanting to get the Department to take responsibility over the conservation of the elephants.
After all attempts to scare the animal away with fire crackers failed, the easiest way out of the predicament therefore was to secretly kill the animal. The District Forest Officer for Indigenous Forests gave his permission to an official to shoot the elephant. (T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018). The official who shot Aftand was an adventurous young forestry professional who found the opportunity irresistible. In this hunt he was accompanied by two of his colleagues. After they shot it (in the forest at Kruisfontein), they covered the carcass with branches to conceal it. Thereafter they cut off the trunk, one ear, one foot and both tusks.
About a day or two later, the carcass was discovered by a forest worker form a forest village nearby and reported to his superiors. The Department announced, in a press release, news of “the sad death of one of the world’s most southerly herd of elephants”. They blamed poachers for the elephant’s death. However, too many people in the small forest community knew what was really going on. A police investigation was called for. During the investigation the officials who buried the tusks at Saasveld unearthed them and handed them to the police. The reason why they had been buried was to maybe hide them, but also to get them clean, for it is known that microbes in the soil get rid of all the impurities. There was no motive to steal the tusks (this was tried by the court and they were found not guilty). The two accused officials, the one who made the decision to secretly shoot and the other who actually shot the elephant, appeared in the George magistrate’s court, where they conducted their own defence. There having been no evidence that the officials had any male fide intentions to hunt or steal forest produce, they were acquitted, i.e. found not guilty (T. Stehle, personal communication, 21 January 2018; Watson, 2002).
The death of Aftand, according to the late Lyall Watson (botanist, zoologist, biologist, anthropologist, ethologist, and author), brought about a change for the Knysna elephants. Since the Pretorius massacre in 1920, the elephants never gathered together anymore, nobody had seen a herd since. But the nine or ten elephants within the Knysna forest were still in touch, just keeping their distance in order to avoid attracting too much attention. They were still a herd in some way, and it was as if Aftand had been a pivotal presence, secreting some sort of substance, the smell of which held the group together (Watson, 2002). However, Dave Reynell, retired forest scientist at DAFF Scientific services, states that he never knew the Knysna elephants as a “herd”. As Carter and many others noted, they were spread across several small groups. Several of the older bulls were “loners”. Reynell doubts whether the Pretorius Millwood massacre of the 1920’s had any effect on the herding (or lack thereof) instincts of the Knysna elephants (D. Reynell, personal communication, 18 January 2018).
According to Van der Vyver (2014), during the 1960’s and 70’s the Knysna elephants were ranging the Gouna and Diepwalle areas and crossing the National Road regularly to Harkerville, the last remaining coastal area accessible to them. Since 1977, the Knysna elephants stopped crossing the National Road and became completely absent from the Harkerville forest (D. Reynell, personal communication, 18 January 2018; Patterson, 2009). Reasons for this include: 1) several of the animals had died of old age 2) continuous harassment by land-owners bordering the forest who often took “pot-shots” at the elephants with old .303s when they (the elephants) raided their fruit trees and vegetable gardens at night 3) trauma that occurred in that area which kept the elephants away 4) a drastic increase in traffic. It became unsafe even at night to cross the N2…
This article compliments of Ryno Joubert – firstname.lastname@example.org