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Tracking down the elusive Knysna elephants

Knysna forest
The Knysna forests form the largest closed canopy forest in southern Africa

There has not been a confirmed sighting of an elephant in the Knysna forests of South Africa for decades, after they were hunted to the brink of extinction in the early 1900s. But signs of their survival can still be found, as Hamilton Wende discovers.

The sound of birds calling, twittering and chattering to one another fills the cool forest air.

The trees towering above - kalander, yellowwood, stinkwood - create a vast, soaring canopy of mingled shade and light that surrounds you as you walk the paths.

The Knysna forests are one of the great wonders of our country, and one of the most rewarding experiences you can have is to explore them with children.

Recently, I was there with my wife and stepchildren. The beauty and the fascination of the forest were enhanced by the excitement they brought to their first encounter with it.

A century ago there were up to 600 elephants here. They were hunted ruthlessly for their ivory, but for a long time the impenetrable nature of the forest and the elephants' skill at threading their way through the trees meant that their numbers remained relatively stable.

Then gold was discovered in the area and, although the seam petered out, it led to many more humans arriving, establishing a mine and a small town.

The hunting of the elephants increased exponentially until, according to some estimates, there were only 30 to 50 elephants left in 1902.

Map showing the Knysna forest region of South Africa

By 1920, there were perhaps fewer than 10.

This was the point at which the Knysna elephants and their fate shifted into the netherworld between history and myth.

For decades now, the animals have been seldom seen - years have gone by without any confirmed sightings.

Particularly ferocious

In 1980 the Department of Forestry claimed there were only two or three elephants remaining in the entire dense woodland.

Since then, their existence has become even more shrouded in doubt with many studies claiming that the rare photographs of an elephant in the forest all showed the same single individual.

It was with this shifting, uncertain notion of the giants in the forest that we began our walk.

The children were excited by the possibility that these beasts still lived in the deep, sun-speckled shadows around us - but of course, none of us really wanted to encounter one of them.

Elephants are dangerous enough anywhere in the wild, but those in the Knysna forest are said to be particularly ferocious.

It comes, they say, from the memory of generations having been slaughtered by humans.

"You don't want to see one of these elephants," the guide at the nearby mine museum told us.

"Some of my guys saw one a few months ago and it came charging at them. They raced off on their quad bikes and luckily managed to get away, but it was close."

An elephant at Kruger Park, South Africa
Humans have now learned not to take either forests or elephants for granted

Elephant memories may be a cliche, but there's no doubting the cruelty suffered by those in the Knysna forest.

"Often they used to hack their tusks out when the animals were still alive," the guide told us.

PJ Pretorius - a famous hunter in the 1920s - describes in his autobiography, Jungle Man, shooting four elephants in a matter of minutes for the benefit of a film camera and an audience of ladies from the local hotel.

He shot another in the head in front of the camera.

The wounded elephant struggled in agony to its feet with a bullet in its brain, until another shot brought it down.

Revered beings

That was another era. We humans have now learned, perhaps, not to take either forests or elephants for granted any longer.

Forests have become sacred places and elephants, revered beings.

Scientist and writer, Lyall Watson, claims that in 2000 he witnessed a female Knysna elephant standing at the edge of the forest right on the coastline.

There, in the sea only a stone's throw away, was a blue whale.

Watson heard deep rumbling from the female elephant as it stared out to sea, and he is convinced she was communicating with the whale.

And so, with such history in mind, we walked quietly together on the forest pathway.

At one point along the shaded trail, my stepdaughter stopped and pointed to the edge of the beaten track.

There, trampled down into the forest earth, was a heap of animal dung.

"Do you think it could be from an elephant?" she asked excitedly.

"It might be," I replied, with a caution that belied my own excitement.

Later, the guide at the museum confirmed our hopes. "It had to be," he told us. "There are no other animals in the forest that big."

Sadly we never did get to see a Knysna elephant, but our day in the forest, walking in their footsteps, made us take a closer look into our own souls.

It made us consider what truths about our planet we may have been blinded to.

And the ongoing uncertainty about the elephants and their continued survival is a haunting reminder of the need for the presence of wonder and mystery in our own lives.

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Country profile: South Africa
21 Jun 11 |  Country profiles

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