In 2000, the ‘Matriarch’ (about 60 years old) was seen by the late Lyall Watson. She was standing on the edge of the Harkerville forest staring towards the sea.
This was the last (known) occurrence of an elephant crossing the National Road to Harkerville (Van der Vyver, 2014; Watson, 2002). The sighting by Watson meant that the ‘Matriarch’ was not dead after all, but was elsewhere, in places where elephants had not roamed for almost a quarter of a century. The ancient elephant pathways at Harkerville had beckoned again and the ‘Matriarch’ had heard the call (Patterson, 2009).
On 7 September 2000, a forestry official took a photograph of an elephant near the Gouna portion of the forests about 30 meters away. Dr Ian Whyte, an elephant specialist, confirmed the elephant in question to be a young bull (about 20 years old), and it had one tusk on the left side (Landmark Foundation, 2015; Patterson, 2009).
The appearance of the young bull meant that prior to the female Kruger elephants being removed the year before, there had been a small but viable breeding nucleus of elephants all along. According the Gareth Patterson (environmentalist, researcher and author), by declaring the ‘Matriarch’ the last Knysna elephant, and then by removing the Kruger elephants from their adopted home, the authorities had committed an ecological bungle (Patterson, 2009).
In 2001, Gareth Patterson began an independent study of the Knysna elephants. For the next seven years he gathered data by covering thousands of kilometres on foot, following ancient elephant paths through the dense Afromontane forest and the surrounding mountain fynbos. He found abundant signs to suggest that, far from dying-out, the Knysna elephants are, quietly and secretly, holding their own (Patterson, 2009).
Dung samples were collected, measured and studied to determine the sex, age and diet of the elephants. It was previously thought that the elephants were only confined to the forest, but this was clearly not true. By studying the contents of the dung samples, one of the most noticeable plant items found in the dung samples was the ‘spikelets’ of one particular restio species (part of the fynbos family) known as the ‘olifantsriet’, and this meant that the elephants ate fynbos which were not present in the forest but outside the forest. Restios are very rich in phosphorus. As previously mentioned, the apparent lack of phosphorus in the diet of the Knysna elephants was thought to be the ‘cause’ of the low reproduction rate. This was proved to be untrue as they are eating the phosphorus-rich restios. Gareth frequently found evidence of elephants utilising the mountain fynbos beyond the forest complex, as well as the plantations where fynbos and forest pioneer tree species re-establish themselves. He found more evidence of the elephants utilising mountain fynbos, plantations and forest edge than the forest itself (Patterson, 2009).
Gareth also studied footprints and dung of the elephants to determine their age. Through measurement of hind footprints, as well as measurement of circumference of dung bolus, age of elephants can be determined. There were lots of damage caused by a musth bull who destroyed SANParks pathway boards and more (A bull elephant has a period of musth each year for a few months where it is very aggressive). Evidence of calves was also found in the forest (Patterson, 2009).
In 2002, two officials from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry recorded an elephant on video in Maraisbos (Gouna Forest). Dr Ian Whyte confirmed that this is definitely footage of an adult female (about 18 years old) with two tusks (News24, 2002; Patterson, 2009). The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry officially stated in 2002 that there remained at least three Knysna elephants, and that there might be more elephants living in the forest. However, it is difficult to prove since there has to be a photograph of the animal before its existence can be verified and registered (News24, 2002).
In 2005, the Scientific Services section of the Forestry Department reviewed the Knysna elephant population status by analysing available information. As in 1994, the results, again, pointed towards a scenario of a single surviving elephant. Still no verified reports of more than one elephant seen together existed. Spatiotemporal structure of fresh elephant signs (spoor, dung and breakage) and physical sightings, recorded from the 1980s, was still consistent with a scenario of a single surviving elephant. Detailed comparison of available photographic material did not produce conclusive evidence for more than one elephant. Forestry decided to continue with structured monitoring and pursue additional high resolution photographic material (Landmark Foundation, 2015; T. Stehle, personal communication, 22 January 2018).
Gareth Patterson sent thirty-five dung samples to a conservation geneticist in the USA, Dr. Lori Eggert. She extracted DNA from the samples in order to determine the number, relatedness and genetic diversity of the elephants. Gareth received the results in 2007, and it revealed that:
1) there were at least five young adult cow elephants in the forest and mountain fynbos
2) they are a young and healthy population
3) the Knysna elephants and those of Addo are genetically one population
3) the females were all related, with the results suggesting two of the females are a first order, or parent-offspring, relationship (therefore a mother and daughter existed, with the other three females being half-siblings) and
4) the genetic diversity of the five Knysna females was higher than in the Addo elephants. The fact that the research found only five cows did not bother Gareth as it is known that bulls roam a bigger area than cows and often live in more isolated areas (areas not used extensively by females and young), having a wider habitat tolerance than the rest of an elephant population (Patterson, 2009).
On 15 May 2008, during the filming of ‘The Search for the Knysna Elephants’, an elephant bull was filmed on video (Patterson, 2009).
On 26 November 2008, Hylton Herd, then SANParks’ Knysna Elephant Project Co-Ordinator, took a few photos of a Knysna elephant (regarded as the best on file to date) – see Appendix ‘U’. The elephant was identified as a cow most probably between the age of thirty-five and fifty years (South African National Parks, 2008).
Hylton studied photographs taken in recent years and is convinced that there is only one elephant remaining, despite the DNA study done by Gareth. He drew this conclusion by studying the ragged edge at the exterior of the elephant’s ears and comparing the pattern to that on the other photographs (South African National Parks, 2008). Hylton also said that it is difficult to believe Gareth’s findings considering that SANParks monitor the forests daily, and that they always find evidence of only one elephant at a time (CXPRESS, 2008).
A second DNA population study done by Gareth (2008-2009) revealed in 2009 that there was in fact a sixth young adult cow present in the Knysna herd (G. Patterson, personal communication, 9 January, 2018).
According to Gareth’s field evidence and DNA studies there were, in 2009, at least six young adult cows, two bulls (one with a prominent left tusk with the right tusk broken off – aged 18-20 in 2000; and one older bull with two tusks of equal length), the possibility of a third bull – aged 10-15 in 2008, and at least two calves – aged 5-6 months in October 2002 and 1½ in November 2004 respectively (Patterson, 2009).
On 5 May 2011, hikers from the Plett Panters Hiking Group saw two elephants (one big and one small) feeding on the other side of a gorge. Six out of the eleven hikers saw two elephants, the rest only saw one (R. Eidelman, personal communication, 3 January 2018).
Kerley et al. (2011) stated that the Knysna elephant population may represent a refugee species scenario. Refugee species are defined as those that can no longer access optimal habitat, but are confined to suboptimal habitats, with consequences of decreased fitness and density, and attendant conservation risks. According to Kerley et al. (2011) the identification of refugee species, characterization of their pre-refugee ecology, and the restoration of such species to optimal habitat, is critical to their successful conservation. For the Knysna population, therefore, it would be important to firstly test the refugee hypothesis, and secondly identify other habitats they frequented historically, but inaccessible to them today. Moolman (2012) stated that this is currently being addressed through ecological studies conducted by SANParks (Garden Route National Park: State of knowledge, 2014).
Between 2011 and 2014, SANParks’ scientists have moved away from relying on photographic techniques for population status determination (due to potential disturbances to the elephants) and started with non-invasive monitoring techniques. SANParks’ monitoring techniques involve gathering data on, for example,
1) dung measurements to determine age structure of the group, and
2) dung samples for reproductive and stress hormone testing to determine the reproductive functionality of the group as well as assessing the level of stress hormones released when the elephants move through certain areas (Moolman, 2012; L. Moolman, personal communication, 25 January 2018).
In 2014, 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. They placed camera traps at approximately 3.5 km apart throughout this forest in order to estimate leopard density and to establish biodiversity indices They often get ‘by-catch’ of species which is important part of the data collection. One particular species was of great interest, they photographed a Knysna elephant. From their camera trap (set across 18,000ha of forest) data which ran for 18 months they appeared to capture the same female elephant across the forest during the survey – see Appendix ‘V’ (Landmark Foundation, 2015).
On 1 September 2014, Howard Butcher, a local recording engineer and FGASA field guide, was charged by a Knysna elephant. According to him, it was a healthy young adult cow. She had a shoulder height of about 2.3m, by which means Butcher estimated her age at about twenty-five years. Due to the width of her girth he estimated it highly likely that she is pregnant. She also had two even unbroken tusks about 600mm long (Piece of Eden, 2014).
On 9 March 2016, Mountain to Ocean (MTO) field workers captured video footage and photos of an elephant, believed to be female (Traveller24, 2016).
Gareth Patterson suspects that in recent years the oldest Knysna bull might have died, and evidence suggests that a younger bull has taken its place (G. Patterson, personal communication, 9 January, 2017).
Despite Gareth’s DNA studies, field evidence and sightings by people in the area, SANParks still believe that there is only one middle-aged female elephant remaining. However, non-intrusive monitoring of the elephant(s) continues.
This beautiful, sad and well researched article series was undertaken by Ryno Joubert – firstname.lastname@example.org. He thanks the following people who provided him input and advice:
- Bennett van Rensburg (Knysna local)
- Dave Reynell (Retired forest scientist at DAFF Scientific services)
- Izak van der Merwe (Forest scientist at DAFF Scientific services)
- Philip Caveney (Chairman of the Knysna Historical Society)
- Prof Coert Geldenhuys (Forest Ecologist at University of Pretoria)
- Tammy Havenga (Knysna local)
- Theo Stehle (Retired from DAFF; formerly District Forest Manager of the Indigenous Forest District)
- Val Stroud (Knysna local)
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Patterson, G. (2009). The Secret Elephants. South Africa: Penguin Books
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South African National Parks unpublished report.
- South African National Parks. (2008). Knysna’s Forest Elephant makes a special appearance just before the holiday season. Available at: www.sanparks.org/parks/garden_route/news/2008/elephant_appears.php?PHPSESSID=iike345soktpmdfe1kop34a8q7
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- Van der Merwe, I. (2002). The Knysna and Tsitsikamma Forests: Their history, ecology and management. South Africa: Chief Directorate Forestry
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- Watson, L. (2002). Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant. United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company