For decades, their enigmatic existence has been shrouded in mystery and been the subject of intense speculation: just how many elusive, free-roaming elephants survive in the Knysna forest and its surrounding fynbos habitat?
SANParks has long held that only a single, elderly elephant clings to life while research by environmentalist Gareth Patterson and conservation geneticist Lori Eggert, a decade ago, revealed a small, viable population of around eight individuals, using faecal DNA genotyping.
Now, a new study has determined that only one elephant - a “lonely” 45-year old female, clings to life, moving between the indigenous forest and fynbos areas in the Garden Route National Park and neighbouring private properties.
The 2016/2017 study, And Then There Was One: A Camera Trap Survey of the Declining Population of African Elephants in Knysna, was led by SANParks scientist Lizette Moolman, and used 80 cameras, deployed at nearly 40 locations in the entire range.
“The cameras were all active for 15 months, and during this time the same female elephant was identified in 140 capture events, always by herself. No other elephants were photographically captured,” explains Moolman.
The survey has “provided robust and repeatable data that clearly demonstrates that only one elephant remains. As a consequence it must be recognised that the Knysna population is functionally extinct and future management must reflect either supplementation and/or addressing the welfare issues regarding the one remaining elephant.”
But Patterson, who spent seven years traversing thousands of kilometres of the forest and mountain fynbos on foot, conducting population studies using faecal DNA, believes the study is inaccurate. “When I take people out on forest expeditions, we consistently come across spoor and dung - you can see the different ages of the elephants out there.”
His long years of fieldwork on these “special elephants” has proven they brought themselves back from the brink.
“The first (study) in 2007 indicated the presence of five relatively young adult females. Results of the second (2009) came up with the same five females, plus a sixth that we missed the first time round. Field work additionally indicated the presence of three bulls and of calves.”
Measuring hind foot diameter (and circumference measurement of dung) scientifically indicates the age of elephants.
“Hundreds of such measurements over the years has indicated we have different aged elephants here - from young calves to large bulls. You do not have to be an elephant expert to see there are different sizes of footprints here.
“I worry daily about the Knysna elephants, as it is a tiny endangered population. But if I believed that only one of these elephants exists, I would be the very first person to say, ‘How could we allow this to happen?’ What I would strongly recommend scientists to do though, is to undertake a comparison DNA census to determine the current numbers of the Knysna elephants.”
Patterson contends that it is possible that behavioural responses to camera traps could affect detection probabilities.
The Knysna elephants, unlike other savannah elephant, are fairly solitary in nature, he says, and use an area larger than what was surveyed.
Moolman’s co-author Professor Graham Kerley, director of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at Nelson Mandela University, says it would be “thrilling” to find out his team was wrong.
“We welcome any robust information that could be provided to refute our findings - that there is only a single elephant - and it would be wonderful to find out that the situation is not as tragic as our findings show.
“In the meantime, the only robust data that is available for decision making is Lizette Moolman’s exemplary study using camera traps. Incidentally, the use of camera trap data is growing exponentially and the scientific community has wholeheartedly embraced this to address questions around animal population size, densities, distribution ranges and behaviour - there are literally thousands of well-accepted scientific papers using this technology.
“There is no issue about the detection or camera avoidance in this study of the Knysna forests. What is intriguing is that Mr Patterson does not explain why the photograph data only ever include a single animal and this is always identifiable as the same individual. Why do his other elephants not feature in any of these thousands of images?”
For Kerley, the study findings reveal more about human behaviour than it does about Knysna’s elephants.
Historically, elephants occurred widely along the Southern Cape, using a variety of habitats, until they were wiped out by ivory hunters and persecuted by humans, fleeing into the forest as refugees.
“That only a single animal exists is a major indictment on human behaviour in that we’ve arrogantly squeezed the elephants out of their best habitat, forced them into a place where they have to hide from people and, for 100 years now, we’ve assumed they’re okay.
“There’s this mystique of the Knysna elephants happily trundling around the forest and nobody knows what they’re doing because they’re so secretive. They’re secretive because they’re really dead scared of people. And it’s clear they’re not doing well. It also doesn’t matter if there’s a couple more elephants there - we don’t see the evidence for it - but the situation is the same. The animals are trapped in a marginal, low nutrient habitat. This is not the best habitat for elephants but it’s the least effective habitat for elephant hunters. That’s the difference.”
Camera trapping, state the authors, is a “more reliable approach than DNA genotyping for surveying evasive, individually identifiable mammals occurring at extremely low numbers”.
SANParks says Patterson and Eggert’s study was published in 2007. “We can only really report on and explain what it is that we found 15 years later. SANParks carried out this survey to gather reliable and consistent information on the Knysna elephant behaviour and numbers, to enable well-informed decision making, and not to try and prove previous investigators wrong.
“Whether there are one or two or three elephants, we can safely say that there is a problem - the Knysna elephant is under threat. If various parties, on different sides of the number debate, can agree to disagree about the number and agree that there is a problem, then the conversation can progress to a more constructive level.”
In 1994, the Department of Forestry attempted an introduction of three orphaned female elephants from the Kruger. The experiment failed - one of the elephants perished soon after release from the forest boma, and the remaining two roamed outside the forest on private land and were eventually re-located to Shamwari.
“We welcome any robust information that could be provided to refute our findings - that there is only a single elephant, a requirement to understand whether introductions will be viable.”
Patterson, who lives on the edge of the forest, hopes for intervention in the future. “Knowing there’s a viable little population out there, hopefully one day we will intervene in one way or another to try and stimulate the numbers.”