Elusive elephant photographed in Knysna Forest

Published January 10, 2014
 Species spotlight

On 6 November 2013 an elephant triggered a camera trap in the Knysna Forest set-up for Leopard research by the Landmark Foundation. On the photographs the elephant’s tusks, trunk and legs are visible. Unfortunately no parts suitable for identification purposes, e.g. forehead shape, sex organs or ear-notch patterns, are visible in the photographs.

Having recently visited Knysna I was wondering why camera traps are not deployed in researching the elephant population of the Knysna Forest. Very little is known about them – it is extremely difficult to study an animal that you cannot find. Some people even doubt their existence. The latest evidence should get rid of all doubt once and for all.

The Knysna Forest elephants were hunted almost to extinction by the early 20th century. In 1970 the population was estimated to be a mere 11. Instinct lead the last remaining members of the once massive herds that roamed the southernmost areas of Africa to adapt in order to survive. Within two generations, they had developed specialised skills to enable them to live in the kind of vegetation where they could avoid the hunter’s gun. They learnt to survive on a different diet, most significantly of all though, they became masters in the art of silence and stillness, becoming almost ghost-like, avoiding any contact with man.

South African environmentalist Gareth Patterson started research on these elephants almost thirteen years ago, with the aim to discover how many actually still remain. I have since learnt that a non-invasive method of genetic censusing based on the extraction of DNA from elephant dung is used to determine numbers of individuals, sexes of individuals, the relatedness between them and the level of genetic diversity present in the population.

The results of a population study, published in 2007 by conservation geneticist Lori S. Eggert of the University of Missouri-Columbia and Patterson, have shown that at least five females exist within the population, and two of the animals identified appear to be first-order relatives and that several others may be half-siblings. ‘The results also suggest that the surviving Knysna elephants are closely related to the elephants of the Addo Elephant National Park’ says Patterson.

The Knysna elephants are the only unfenced elephant population in South Africa and are extremely difficult to see. These elusive giants of the forest continue to survive despite considerable odds.

My hope is that successful methods can be found to increase the genetic diversity of the Knysna elephants as, according to Eggert, it is lower than that found in most African savannah populations and it could pose a serious problem in the future.

The next time you are in Knysna, do yourself a favour and visit the Knysna Forest. Go to Krisjan-se-Nek and do the Circles-in-the-Forest walk and take the time to stand still. And listen. And imagine these majestic animals moving through the forest in great stillness. Truly magnificent.


A documentary about Patterson’s findings on the remarkable Knysna elephants was screened on Animal Planet in August 2009. Here are a few scenes from the documentary:


Eggert, L. S., Patterson, G. and Maldonado, J. E. (2008), The Knysna elephants: a population study conducted using faecal DNA. African Journal of Ecology, 46: 19–23. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2028.2007.00794.x

Gareth Patterson Website: http://www.garethpatterson.com

Knysna Woodworkers Website : http://knysnawoodworkers.co.za/articles/knysna-elephants/

Sanparks Media Release: http://www.sanparks.org/about/news/default.php?id=55970

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