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Knysna elephants – No evidence for more than 1 survivor

27/10/2008 22:29:22

Knysna elephant. Credit Wilfred Oraii/Sanparks

Sanparks Statement on the Knysna elephant

In 1876, the Knysna elephants, that freely ranged the forest and fynbos areas in the southern cape, numbered about 500 individuals. The numbers declined rapidly as increasing numbers of woodcutters and hunters settled in the area. By 1908 the population status was estimated at 20 individuals, dwindling further to an estimated 11 by 1970. By 1980 a mere 3 individuals were believed to still roam the area.

Failed introduction
Knysna elephants formed the southern-most natural population of the species. In 1994, three young female elephants where introduced from the Kruger National Park in an attempt to sustain the presence of elephants in the Knysna forest area. The translocated elephants did not remain within the largely forested conservation area but progressively chose to range in more open habitat on private land, and were eventually relocated to the Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape.

Assessments of population status 1994
In 1994, soon after the introduction of the Kruger elephants, an assertive effort was made to verify the population status of the Knysna elephants. The results revealed a worst case scenario of a single surviving elephant:
• A ground census (sweep) did not produce any evidence for the existence of more than one animal;
• The spatiotemporal structure of fresh elephant signs (dung, spoor, breakages, etc.) and physical sightings, recorded from 1990, was consistent with a scenario of a single surviving elephant;
• Photographic records of 1986, 1992 and 1994 all appears to depict the same animal;
• There was no verified evidence of more than one elephant seen together beyond 1992.
Ten years later, in 2005, available information and monitoring data were analysed again. These results, again, pointed towards a scenario of a single surviving elephant:
• There were, again, no verified reports of more than one elephant seen together;
• As in 1994, all observations (sightings, dung, spoor, breakage, etc.) were consistently spatiotemporally staggered, i.e. never were signs of elephants originating from more than one locality at the same time recorded for the preceding decade;
• Detailed comparison of available photographic material (also considering tusk breakages that could result in diverse tusk configurations) did not produce conclusive evidence for more than one elephant.  It was decided to continue with structured monitoring and pursue additional high resolution photographic material.

Knysna elephant. Credit Hilton Herd/SANParks.

Knysna elephant. Credit Hilton Herd/SANParks.

No reliable evidence for more than one elephant
Today, three and a half years later, the spatiotemporal staggering in monitoring data is still consistently sustained. The additional photographic material obtained can be related to previously existing material, inter alia through comparing ear serration patterns. Considering the above, South African National Parks concludes that there is no reliable evidence for the existence of more than one Knysna elephant.

Future management
To verify the population status, the current monitoring programme to record elephant-related observations (sightings, dung, spoor, etc.) in a structured manner, together with the regular analysis of data, and the gathering of photographic material, will continue.

2007 survey suggested at least 5 elephants
Following the findings of a study by external researchers, using faecal DNA to quantify the population size, indicating that there are at least five remaining Knysna elephants (Eggert et al. 2007), SANParks have embarked on a parallel study which, is still in its initial stages. Click here to see the 2007 survey

Habitat unsuitable for elephants in current state
It is maintained that the poor reproductive performance and population decline of the Knysna elephants are attributed to dietary constraints in the predominantly forest environment to which they were largely confined as a result of residential and agricultural/forestry development in the region (Seydack et al. 2000). A viable elephant population can only be established if suitable additional habitat is obtained and added to the forest/fynbos areas currently within the jurisdiction of SANParks. Considering the constraints with confining such a population to the larger conservation area, and the fragmented and open-access nature of the envisaged Garden Route National Park, this is currently not considered to be a viable management option.

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