Wildlife Wednesday: Mystery of the Knysna Elephants

09 Sep


(and a little farewell message to Adriaan, Jesse, Meg and Wian)

Have you ever walked in the Diepkloof forest in Knysna where you are in the heart of the “Kringe in n bos saga”? Evergreen colossal forest ferns engulf the forest floor like a tapestry. High up in the tree-tops you can hear the guttural calls of the Knysna Turaco and Narina Trogon. The water in the dense mountain forest streams is a rich toffee-brown colour due to the tannins in the trees that leach into the water. It is here, where if you are very lucky, you might encounter a mystic forest elephant.

I have always been fascinated by the stories you hear about the forest elephants and wondered if there really still are Knysna elephants left. A couple of years ago, I went on a hike through the forest with a friend, and although we did not see any elephants, not even a sign; the security guard at the boom-gate swore high and low that he saw one on New Year’s Day of that specific year! (Now if that was true or not, I do not know, having claimed to have seen it on New Year’s Day? Maybe there were one too many Autumn Harvests involved -haha!) Nonetheless, the mystery remains interesting and it gives you a kind of hope, that somewhere, in the middle of the dark green forest lies an oasis of light, hope, and promise.

The Knysna elephants, their population numbers, habits, and movement patterns through the depth of the Knysna forest remains a subject of speculation, debate, and ongoing research. The famous South African author, Daleen Mathee enhanced their mystique in several of her books, where she referred to them as “Groot Voete” or “OuPoot”. (Which translates as “Big Feet” and “Old Feet”).

There have been descriptions of coastal encounters between whales and elephants and their secret communication by woodcutters, and such tales have been passed on from elder to elder over time.

See, elephants and baleen whales use the same type of communication between members of the herd/pod. They communicate via infrasound, which is low-frequency sound. Animals that use this type of communication can communicate with family members for over hundreds of kilometers. Now, for two different species to be communicating is just, absolutely fascinating! If it is true – we yet need to discover the answers to that one! Elephants and whales share more characteristics – both these species can live to an incredibly old age and both almost certainly remember long-past events. And what is even more remarkable is that both these species act heroically to protect other members of their group.

Despite research done in recent years, the extremely dense nature of the Knysna forest does not easily permit the acquisition of conclusive data. Reports of the population size of the Knysna elephants’ number from 1 to 12 individuals. For many years it was believed that there was only one single matriarch that survived, however, recent studies suggest otherwise.

The Knysna elephants are Africa’s most southerly elephant population and South Africa’s only free-roaming population. In pre-colonial times, it is said that approximately a thousand elephants were located in the Outeniqua / Tsitsikamma area. This number was halved by the 1850’s and their numbers declined rapidly according to a report in 1876 by Captain Harison, the then Forest Conservator, as woodcutters moved into the vicinity and more and more hunters frequented the area. By 1902, the Knysna elephant numbers were said to be fewer than 50. Their story does not get any better, and their numbers kept on declining. In 1994 three cull-orphaned elephants from the Kruger National Park were introduced to try to save the population. Sadly, it was a terribly cold and wet Winter, and one of the introduced elephants died from stress-related pneumonia. These young elephants were monitored carefully over the next couple of years, however, in 1999, they were moved to a game reserve somewhere in the Eastern Cape.

The local forest guards continued to monitor the Knysna elephants and they remained the seemingly elusive and mystical creatures of fame whose shadows whisper through the forest and fynbos. Between 2002 and 2008, scientists continued doing studies and research on the Knysna elephants. This was conducted by using dung samples found in the forest. One interesting discovery regarding their diet was that they routinely ate a bracket fungus (Ganoderma applanatum). This was a great discovery to scientists, as this has never been recorded before! Ganoderma is reported to be a superb source of vitamin B, as well as an excellent boost for the immune system. It has been used in the treatment of various diseases, including cancer.

The results of the dung sample research have shown more elephants than suspected. The research is, however, ongoing.

The Knysna elephants remain a mystery though. Their only presence is the occasionally broken tree, spoor, their dung, or a tusk mark on a tree.

They are truly “Grey giants” and “Grey ghosts”.

I sincerely hope that the stories are true, and I hope to one day see an elephant on the edge of the forest chatting away to his giant, blubber-skinned friends deep in the ocean😊

It is however sad to witness the consequences of our greedy human actions. It is not only the elephants that are in grave danger but also whales. Both whales and elephants play large roles in the ecology removing ANY species from the ecosystem promises vast and unpredictable disruptions of the ecology.

It is a terrifying thought and heart-breaking reality that we are eliminating two of the most enigmatic and intelligent species on planet earth.

“When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.”

Thank You!


To Megan Fisher, Adriaan Buitendach, Jesse Louw and Wian Cowan:

You guys have been absolute stars – no hassles or issues, no fights or tears, only a happy bunch of students. It was such a pleasure to spend a month with you guys on the Marine guide course😊 Like always, we say that we wish it were longer, there is just not enough time to delve deeper into all of the fascinating subjects.

You guys have all done extremely well and I am super proud of all of you!

Yes, we will miss you all, but we also cannot wait to see what amazing things you all are going to do out there.

Good luck to all of you and a huge congratulations once more!!

Big love to you all😊


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