EXPERT OPION OF SANParks PURSUIT OF A SCIENTIFIC BASED STRATEGY FOR THE MANAGEMENT OF THE KNYSNA FOREST ELEPHANT

EXPERT OPINION OF THE SANPARKS PURSUIT OF A SCIENTIFIC-BASED STRATEGY FOR THE MANAGEMENT OF THE KNYSNA FOREST ELEPHANT

The Pro Elephant Network (PREN) consists of a significant global community of diverse individuals and organisations. The PREN network boasts a wealth of expertise, related to wild and captive African and Asian Elephants, including but not limited to the fields of science, health, conservation, welfare and well-being, economics, community leadership, indigenous knowledge, social justice and the law, these experts have enjoyed a successful collaborative function since 2019.

On the 22nd March 2024 members of PREN offered their expert opinion about SANParks pursuit of a scientific based strategy for the management of the Knysna Forest elephant.

Introduction

The Knysna elephant(s), Loxodonta africana, represent the most southerly group of savanna elephants in Africa; they are remnant of larger populations which occupied this region of South Africa in the past. Due to the influx of humans over the last century, the range of these elephants was largely confined to the approximately 200 km2 forest area around Knysna. The decline of this population of elephants to a single adult female presents a major challenge to the national conservation agency, South African National Parks (SANParks).

On the 7th of March 2024, SANParks issued a public statement confirming their intention to pursue an evidence-based management approach for the female elephant, located in the Knysna forest. More specifically, the Knysna forest is an area located in the Garden Route District Municipality in the Western Cape province of South Africa which falls under the management of SANParks.

According to the content of the media statement, SANParks has embarked on a sociological and ecological assessment that will guide their decision-making process. A targeted survey confirmed that, while the majority of respondents were in favour of the introduction of more elephants to the Garden

Route elephant range, they were cognisant of the fact that it would be a complicated process requiring expertise.

The reason for the statement issued by SANParks on the 7th of March 2024 is that a filmmaker who tracked, photographed and published photographs of an elusive female elephant in Knysna forest for twelve weeks in 2023 is trying to convince SANParks that a herd of elephants should be introduced to the Knysna forest to provide company for the lone female and to restore the ecosystem in the Knysna forest.

Since his brief single encounter with the elephant, he has been championing the introduction of an imported herd of elephants to the forest. He has formed an action group called Herd Instinct. The group, described on their Facebook page, as free-spirited environmentalists who believe that the lone female elephant desperately needs company. On the 14th of March 2024, the group organised a meeting in Knysna to galvanise support.

SANParks has captured the female elephant on camera every two to three weeks and they have, as a result, accumulated over 15000 photographs and high-quality videos of her, using strategically placed camera traps. Through the measurement of stress hormones in her dung it has been confirmed that, in areas where there is intense human activity or when she is being tracked, she becomes stressed.

Background

Historically, elephants occurred widely along the Southern Cape region using a variety of habitats until their population numbers were decimated by ivory hunters. Unfortunately, the Knysna elephants, the only remaining free-ranging elephants in South Africa, have failed to flourish in that location even after official protection was afforded to them in 1908.

According to the study entitled The Decline of the Knysna Elephants – Pattern and Hypothesis it is estimated that of the 3000 elephants that roamed the Cape Floristic Region in pre-colonial times, it is likely that about 1000 elephants occupied the Outeniqua-Tsitsikamma area. Between 1856 and 1886 Knysna experienced a marked influx of humans and a boom in development which increased human- elephant conflict at a further detrimental cost to the elephant population.

During the late 1800s, an estimated 400 to 500 elephants lived in the area but by 1900 only 30 to 50 individuals were left. The aforementioned study highlights the knowledge and management challenges which exist for small, threatened populations of elephants where the long-term demographic data are sparse. The study also provides the first, unbiased evaluation of multiple drivers that may have caused the decline of the Knysna elephants.

The Knysna forest elephants have been the subject of mystery and conjecture for years. Gareth Patterson an award-winning environmentalist, wildlife expert, author and public speaker, published a book called Beyond Secret Elephants which highlights his extensive experiences based on the seven years that he spent examining the Knysna forest on foot.

In 2007 and 2009 his physical research samples were examined by Professor Lori Eggert, the Director of Graduate Studies in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, who has developed a method of genetic censusing specifically for the study of African and Asian elephant populations. According to Professor Lori Eggert, the Knysna forests contain more than one elephant. The results of this study, The Knysna Elephants a Population Study Conducted Using Faecal DNA were published in 2007.

In contradiction to Patterson and Eggert’s published findings, were the results of a study that was conducted in 2016 and 2017 led by SANParks scientist Lizette Moolman using 80 cameras deployed at nearly 40 locations over 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. The conclusion of the study titled, And Then There Was One: A Camera Trap Survey of the Declining Population of African Elephants in Knysna was that it must be recognised that the Knysna population is functionally extinct. Future management must reflect either supplementation and or the addressing the welfare issues regarding the one remaining elephant.