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The Knysna elephants are a very small number of African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana), a relict population of large herds which roamed the Tsitsikamma Forest and surrounding regions at the southern tip of Africa until the 1800s and 1900s, when contact with European farmers and hunters led to their near extinction. It is conjectured that about 1,000 elephants historically roamed the Outeniqua/Tsitsikamma area. Recent DNA analysis of dung samples has revealed the presence of at least 5 cows and possibly some bulls and calves, moving within an area of 121,000 hectares of forest managed by South African National Parks, and constituting the only unfenced elephant group in South Africa. By 2019, researchers have concluded that there is only one elephant, a mature female, remaining in Knysna.
History of decline
Before the arrival of the Bantu and European-origin settlers, the nomadic aboriginal people had refrained from hunting wildlife unsustainably. In two centuries the European settlers came close to obliterating the forests and hunting several species of large mammals to near extinction.
Ivory hunting and loss of habitat to agriculture had all but exterminated elephants from the Cape region of Africa by 1900. The last elephant in the vicinity of the Cape peninsula was killed in 1704 and elephant populations west of the Knysna region were extirpated prior to 1800. By 1775 the remaining Cape elephants had retreated for their lives into forests along the foothills of the Outinequa / Tsitsikamma coastal mountain range around Knysna, and dense scrub-thickets of the Addo bush (Dudley 1976a). As far back as 1870 it was estimated that only some 400 elephants remained out of the enormous numbers that had been observed in and about these southern forests in earlier centuries. Captain Harison, Conservator of Forests between 1856 and 1888, petitioned and begged for the Cape Colonial Government to formally protect the elephants and forests, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.
By 1919 a large herd was peacefully centered about the Addo area of the Eastern Cape. Farmers in this area had been sold their farms at greatly reduced rates and favourable terms because of the elephant presence. Nevertheless, these farmers complained to the authorities about damage to their crops, broken water pipelines and reservoirs and even loss of lives, though it later transpired that the lives lost were those of hunters tracking and killing elephants. Responding to the exaggerated complaints, the Cape Provincial Administration on 25 November 1919 hired a professional hunter and "celebrated" war "hero", Major Philip Jacobus Pretorius, to completely exterminate all elephants in the region. Initially only a reduction in numbers was contemplated, but on 1 April 1919, the Administrator of the Cape, Sir Frederic de Waal, argued in favour of total extermination of all those majestic elephants. By January 1920 it was decided to preserve 16 elephants which were to be left in the Addo Reserve.
In the space of little more than a year, between 12 June 1919 and August 1920, Pretorius single-handedly reduced the population of elephants from about 130 to the 16 individuals which were to be spared and he had absolutely no remorse for it. As if that were not enough, Pretorius applied (to further his devastation) for and was granted permission by the government in 1920 to shoot one of the sequestered 16. The shooting accounted for 5 more elephants by the close of day. Spoils from the initial part of the campaign went to the Province, but from January 1920 on they were the property of Pretorius, who had been approached by various museums for specimens to add to their collections - the South African Museum received four, the Amathole Museum two and eight to the British Museum of Natural History. Pretorius had been requested to record measurements of the elephants he shot/killed/exterminated/obliterated, but these were never made available.
Remnants in the 21st Century
The scattered remnants of the herds had to regroup and drastically modify their behaviour in order to survive. Within a very short period they developed specialist skills to live in forest and fynbos and avoid hunters. Besides the enormous reduction in their range, their diet suffered a major change, including almost no grass, and they became adept at moving almost invisibly and in near silence.
There were believed to be as few as four to seven individuals roaming the Knysna forests in 1950, and a survey conducted in 1969-1970 estimated the population at about 14 individuals in 1970. There were believed to be only four Kynsna elephants remaining in the Gouna/Diepwalle forests between 1976 and 1994, and the population was reported in 1996 to have been functionally extirpated with only a single adult female still present (Dudley 1976b). Nonetheless, in September 2000 a forest guard, Wilfred Oraai, videotaped a young bull from a distance of about thirty metres, immediately raising questions about its provenance. Conservationist Gareth Patterson has collected numerous fresh samples of elephant dung for DNA analysis by geneticist Lori S. Eggert from the University of Missouri in Columbia. In its passage through the digestive system, dung scrapes against the walls of the intestines and as a result has a surface rich in DNA. Analysis suggests at least five females within the population, while Patterson's fieldwork suggests the additional presence of three bulls and two calves.
Despite the DNA evidence, official sources insisted that only one elephant survived, an elusive female known as 'The Matriarch' or 'Oupoot', making the Knysna elephant functionally extinct. In the 1990s in an effort to bolster the numbers, some juvenile elephants were introduced from the Kruger National Park. It was believed at that time that the Knysna elephants survived strictly within the forest, and when the introduced elephants were seen feeding only at forest margins and in fynbos, they were thought not to have adapted to the forest environment and were retrieved some five years later.
- Dudley, J.P. 1996a. African elephants in coastal refuges. Pachyderm 21: 78-83. IUCN/SSC African Elephant and Rhino Specialist Group, Nairobi.
- Dudley, J.P. 1996b. African elephants in coastal refuges: postscript. Pachyderm 22: 6. IUCN/SSC African Elephant and Rhino Specialist Group, Nairobi.
- How many elephants are there in the Knysna forest?, besoek op 28 September 2014
- "Elephant spotted in Knysna forest". knysnaplettherald.com. Knysna-Plett Herald. 10 March 2016. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
- "Major P.J. Pretorius and the decimation of the Addo elephant herd in 1919-1920" - M.T. Hoffman
- "The Search for the Knysna Elephants"
- "The Knysna Elephants" - Sylvia Ferguson
- "In search of the rarest elephants" - Nicole Schafer Archived 2013-10-22 at the Wayback Machine
- "Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant" - Lyall Watson (Penguin, 2003) ISBN 9780143526889
- “The Secret Elephants” - Gareth Patterson (Penguin) EAN: 9780143026136
- "The Knysna Elephants and Their Forest Home" - Margo Mackay (Knysna, 1996)
- "Jungle Man - The Autobiography of Major P. J. Pretorius CMG, DSO and Bar" (George G. Harrap, 1949)