The story of the Knysna elephant is one that is shrouded in mystery. For many years, the question of just how many elephants still find sanctuary within this Knysna’s vast indigenous forest realm was a hotly debated subject and one based largely on sporadic sightings, problematic tracking and speculation. At one point it was believed that only one elephant remained, a female affectionately known as the ‘Matriarch”. Today, however, we know that there is a small but functional population which still exists here. The historic account of the extermination of Knysna’s elephant population, at the hands of man, tugs at the heartstrings in a way which is difficult to describe – and renders their phenomenal survival against impossible odds all the more poetic.
One of the individuals responsible for shedding light on these elusive pachyderms has been Gareth Patterson, an ‘environmentalist, independent wildlife researcher and author’ who has untiringly devoted much of his adulthood to the conservation of our African wildlife. Previously known for his work with lions, Gareth shifted focus and spent many years on a quest to find evidence of the existence of more than one female elephant, which he did.
Very early in his forest explorations, Gareth stumbled upon physical evidence which appeared to contradict the long standing claims of a single matriarch. His decade long search culminated in his literary offering entitled “The Secret Elephants”, compelling reading for anyone even remotely interested in this subject.
He took time off from his work in the forest over the last few years to write his most recent book, “My Lion's Heart: A Life for the Lions of Africa” an autobiography of his life as a wildlife conservationist. Now that it has been published, he is once again delving into the vast habitat of the Knysna Elephants, seeking out the tell-tale signs of their extraordinary survival.
He continues to conduct his ‘The Secret Elephants Forest Experience’ tour which takes three to four hours. This incorporates a 45 km drive as well as short exploratory forest walks and during this time he reveals his findings after his long years of research into the lives of these elusive and amazing elephants. He talks about his findings on their diet, range, numbers, and how they brought themselves back from the very brink of extinction without the aid of humankind. The ‘Forest Experience is a verbal and visual interpretation of his book and is not a search for the elephants. “They must be left in peace and undisturbed,” he says, maintaining that the trip is designed to experience the elephants’ magical and mystical world.
Gareth’s tour is thoroughly intriguing. He has a deep seated reverence for the natural world and the interconnectedness of the life that it holds, and this becomes obvious in his spell binding commentary. When one enters this verdant world it is easy to understand why seeing an elephant in this environment has proved to be so extraordinarily problematic. In an impenetrable maze of green and grey, hundreds upon thousands of stately forest specimens rise up in a tightly knit unison, allowing only slender shafts of light to filter through.
As we drove along the 45km circular route, we stopped often as Gareth pointed out what he referred to as ancient elephant pathways that intersect the forest. We saw palpable signs of their forest meanderings, coming across numerous elephant spoor and piles of dung.
It is these humble elephant droppings which have provided the most significant aspect of Gareth’s research into the Knysna elephants. Because of the difficulty in obtaining photographic evidence of these mysterious creatures, it was imperative to find an alternative method of studying them and Gareth sought the expertise of conservationist geneticist Lori Eggert from the US to assist him in his mission. A number of dung samples were sent for analysis and Eggert’s findings were astonishing: DNA samples revealed that there were at least five female elephants roaming this vast expanse. “They are slowly, but successfully repopulating the area,” confesses Gareth with a smile.
The dung also reveals the elephants’ range. Through analysis, it quickly became obvious that they are not, as previously thought, confined to the forest margins but that they also venture out into the foothills of nearby mountain ranges which are covered in fynbos species. Their diet is rich in the restio species Rhodocoma gigantea, (known also as ‘elephant’s reed’), a type of fynbos with a high phosphorus content, a nutrient vital to elephant reproductive health. They also seek out the Ganoderma applantum, a bracket fungus which various cultures around the world have revered for thousands of years for its immune boosting properties. More than 50% of the dung samples collected had fragments of this mushroom and Gareth learned that for years, local forest people had been boiling elephant dung for medicinal purposes.
These facts and many others are brought to light during the ‘The Secret Elephants Forest Experience’. Here one gets to enjoy not only time in this incredible forest domain, but also in the outskirts of the forest, the expansive panoramic views over the Gouna River and beyond are revealed.