The story of South Africa’s last forest elephant

Local lore has long whispered of the presence of the Knysna elephants, even though sightings were nothing but hearsay for decades.
Written by Melanie du Toit
22 November 2020

Beachside towns skim the Indian Ocean coastline, dispersing into the dense canopies of the Garden Route’s Afro-montane forests along South Africa’s eastern coastline. These lush tree canopies and undulating hills have hidden many secrets over the years, with footprints and tracks lost to the muted nature of the forest and covered by fallen leaves that have long since dampened to duff.

Extending from the small gateway city of George and creeping along the coast and past sleepy towns such as Knysna and Sedgefield, the region’s green tendrils spill over onto the Indian Ocean shoreline, abutted by the Outeniqua mountains further inland. Outeniqua yellowwoods, Cape beech, and stinkwoods tower above the forest floor, harboring shy inhabitants in its subtropical confines, such as the scarcely spotted leopard, bushbuck, the near-endemic Knysna turaco, and the African wood owl.

G
The Knysna forest as seen from Gouna | Source: Paul Bruins

The rich thicket’s shady embrace also holds whispers of vanishing persons, old stories of the Knysna woodcutters, and, curiously enough, the mystical Knysna elephant. And while much speculation about the goings-on in the forest has remained just that, it was more a matter of the elephants not wanting to be found than them not being there.

Reimagining elephant country

Not to be confused with the continent’s forest elephant subspecies, found in the Congo basin and rainforests of Guinea, the Knysna elephants are African bush elephants who have adapted their behaviour over time due to external pressures and a changing environment.

In the 18th century, elephants were abundant along the Garden Route with experts and local records indicating the presence of at least 1,000 of these gentle giants. You’d be forgiven for thinking their range was limited to the forests around its namesake, but in their heydey, the elephant’s range extended all the way along the coastline, onwards into the neighbouring province before stopping in a region known as Addo.

Charl-van-Rooy-Knysna-forest
Source: Charl van Rooy

The Knysna elephant’s expansive territory underwent drastic change starting around 1872 when the first elephant was shot by French naturalist Francois Le Vaille. While he was there to document fauna and flora in the area, Le Vaille’s actions triggered a feverish interest in hunting the world’s large land mammal, which continued unabated for several decades.

At the same time, the forest’s ancient yellowwood and stinkwood trees had made Knysna a logging hub. The burgeoning town’s economy experienced a further boom when a gold nugget was found in a river nearby. Rumours of a wealth of gold deposits (which later turned out to be an overly eager assumption) began to reach neighbouring towns, cities and, later, countries. Within a matter of months, prospective fortune hunters had arrived from all over the world to try their luck at gold panning and mining.

Further up the coast in Addo, farmers had bought land at reduced pricing due to the prevalence of elephants in the area and the limitations this could place on agriculture. After residents had complained about their presence, the administrator of the Cape decreed that the elephants should be eliminated from the area in their entirety, leaving just a small population behind that were protected in a region now known as the Addo Elephant Park. 

An elephant captured in Addo Elephant Park in 2019 | Source: Josh Muller

Tracing gargantuan wraiths

In response to the increased threat of human activity, the Knysna elephants retreated further and deeper into the forest, padding in silence along the forest floor in large familial groups. They adapted to the forest in unique ways, lumbering silently through the underbrush and leaving only dung trails and broken trees here and there as signs of their presence. 

The elephants even modified their diet in order to survive, despite the fact that their optimal grazing grounds were the open valleys and grasslands closer to the coast. In 1939, after extensive logging, the government made the forest off-limits for a period of nearly thirty years in order to give the landscape a chance to regenerate. In this peaceful period, the Knysna elephants had the chance to flourish once again.

Aftand elephant in the Knysna forest
An old bull, Aftand, captured in the Knysna forest in 1969. Source: Dave Reynell

Despite this, they were still viewed as pests and their numbers continued to dwindle. By 1994, the population had become dangerously low and it was decided that elephants from Kruger National Park would be relocated to the Knysna forest in the hopes that they would join the existing herd. In a true testament to the Knysna elephants’ adaptability and prowess, the relocated elephants remained on the fringes of the forest and never successfully integrated with the existing herd, resulting in their final relocation to Shamwari Game Reserve.

The Matriarch and Ou Poot

By the early 2000s, the tangible nature of the Knysna elephants had begun to fade, leaving in its place whispers of infrequent sightings, evidence of elephant presence reported by park rangers, and the enduring hope that these resilient creatures were still wandering the deepest depths of the forest. It was largely agreed upon that one lone female, The Matriarch, roamed the forest, but there was scant evidence to support any more than that.

Then, in 2000, a forest guard on patrol came across and photographed a young bull. This thrilling discovery renewed interest in the Knysna elephants, with one independent researcher, Gareth Patterson, dedicating the better part of the following decade to tracing their whereabouts and documenting his findings and theories in a book, The Secret Elephants: The Rediscovery of the World’s Most Southerly Elephants.

Knysna waterfront
The coastal town of Knysna | Source: Shreekar Lathiya

Following circles in the forest

The African bush elephant is known to travel hundreds of kilometres across landscapes in search of water and food sources, with many of these established routes being passed down through generations. Knysna’s elephants are much the same, and while sightings have proven to be sporadic over the years, increased knowledge of their pathways allowed local authorities to set up camera traps along known routes. This led to a breakthrough finding in early 2018 when South African National Parks released a statement confirming the presence of one, solitary female elephant in the Knysna forest.

Knysna elephant
Source: SANParks

For more than a year, motion-sensor camera traps captured 140 images of the 46-year-old elephant wandering the forest’s pathways, although she was notably alone. This has led experts to believe that the elephant, fondly known as Ou Poot after the elephant in Dalene Matthee’s novel, Circles in the Forest, is the last of her kind to dwell in the forest.

Some locals aren’t convinced, though. Many are optimistic about the continued existence of the Knysna elephant, believing in the cunning and wisdom of creatures who adapted and survived for many years against the greatest of odds.

Today, the Knysna forest forms part of the Garden Route National Park, which is home to hiking trails, forest cabins, and camping sites waiting to be explored. The surrounding towns are known for their Blue Flag beaches, spectacular scenery, and small-town charm.

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