A Previous Attempt to Reintroduce Elephants to the Knysna Forest Area

In 1999 a study was published entitled Habitat Quality and the Decline of an African Elephant Population – Implications for Conservation after three subadult female elephants aged 7 – 9 years were translocated from the Kruger National Park to Diepwalle State Forest in Knysna in 1994. Unfortunately one of the elephants died on release. During the first five months after the release from the boma, situated within the forest, their movements were monitored by radiotracking. Thereafter their positions were periodically monitored by forest guard patrols. Habitat preferences were quantified through the estimated time spent in each of the forest and fynbos habitats. It was also recorded whether the translocated elephants were alone or in the company of the Knysna elephant. This monitoring programme spanned a period of two years and eight months, and according to the study, it involved 182 locations.

The study revealed that the Kruger National Park elephants preferred the more open habitat. The results of the faecal samples taken from the relocated elephants and compared with elephant faecal samples from the Addo National Park are also discussed and published in the study.

The study suggested that the reason for the introduced elephants ultimately roaming separately from the Knysna elephant in a more open habitat was that they were in search of a diet which was more appropriate to their natural nutritional needs. They sought out a corresponding diet as indicated by the findings of the study.

Antoni V Milewski from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town described in detail which plants the elephants preferred to forage on. This information was recorded after he met with Wilfred Oraai the Forest Guard who had monitored the Knysna elephants from 1990 – 2000 and who also studied the KNP introduced elephants continually during their stay.

It was suggested that the decline of the Knysna elephants could be attributed to the low nutrient/carbon ratios in the diet available to them, in their confined to a predominantly forest environment due to residential and agricultural development in the area. The low nutrient-carbon ratios were thought to result in low metabolic turnover rates and thus reproductive rates that are too low to offset mortalities.

Of additional importance, in contrast to the translocated elephants, which were conditioned to human contact during an extended period of captivity prior to release, the Knysna elephant was very sensitive to contact situations with humans.

The two remaining KNP elephants were relocated to the Shamwari Game Reserve after a five-year period in 1999.

Concern About the Proposed Introduction of Elephants to the Knysna Forest

The studies conducted over the years show that the unsuitable habitat for elephant could have significantly contributed to the population demise of the Knysna forest-dwelling elephants. Therefore, it remains of concern that the reintroduction of more elephants might only postpone the extinction of this population of elephants. Importantly, in addition, even if more elephants were introduced into the forest, they would not necessarily be inclined to remain in the forest.

According to the data collected by SANParks, the native female elephant is approximately 50 years old and she has been alone since at least 2016. Analysis of her faeces by SANParks has indicated she is not stressed unless approached by humans, this includes sounds and vibrations she might associate with human activities, or people attempting to track her.

PREN Shares SANParks Continued Measured Approach to the Management of the Knysna Elephant and Expresses Concerns About the Proposed Introduction of Elephants to the Knysna Forest

According to media reports, the proposed group of elephants that are being considered for introduction to the Knsyna forest area would be a “herd” from the Knysna Elephant Park (KEP), a captive elephant business owned by Lisette & Ian Withers. The Knysna Elephant Park offers daily experiences and free and semi-protected contact with the elephants who are trained and controlled by handlers.

(see images in document)

In May 2014 the NSPCA laid animal cruelty charges against Elephants of Eden, the current Knysna Elephant Park, their directors and management including Lizette Withers, in terms of the Animals Protection Act, 71 of 1962 for cruelty to elephants after the NSPCA received footage depicting cruel and abusive training methods employed to control and train elephants for the elephant-based tourist industry.

In July 2015 Indalu Safaris cc, trading as Knysna Elephant Park, was charged and found guilty of being in contravention of Section 44(1) (a) of Ordinance 19 of 1974 for the period 1 December 2003 to 30 November 2009, wrongfully and unlawfully importing into, exporting from or transporting through the Western Cape Province a protected wild animal, to wit sixteen (16) African elephant (Loxodonta africana), without a permit authorising the accused to do so.

In 2022 the EMS Foundation, a member of PREN, wrote to CapeNature referencing the death of an elephant handler at KEP in 2021.

In a natural environment adult male and female elephants live separately in differently structured societies. The basic social grouping, known as a family unit, is a group of related females which may consist of a mother and her young, together with her grown daughters and their offspring. The activity of the group and their movements are led by the ‘matriach’, who is normally the oldest female in the herd. She often walks at or near the front of the herd, with another large female taking up the rear. Herds can range from 2 to 24 animals; when the number of elephants in a group becomes larger, it gradually splits into two or more subunits, along kin lines. The resultant separate families will continue to associate closely, spending between 35 to 70% of their time together. From 12-15 years of age, young bulls will spend over 50% of their time away from the family unit, finally leaving entirely to join other males in loose associations that forage in areas distinct from those of family groups.

To the best of our knowledge there are currently five female elephants at the Knysna Elephant Park; their history does not suggest that they constitute a naturally bonded herd. (see document for images)

In addition, it would be incorrect to assume that the addition of new elephants to the Knysna forest would solve the issue of the lone native female by providing her with some company.

The study published by Dr Rob Atkinson and Dr Keith Lindsay entitled, Expansive Diverse Habitats are Vital for the Welfare of Elephants,  addresses the complex social structures and socio-dynamics in elephants.