Weighing up to 7 000kg, and measuring four metres at its front shoulder, an African bull elephant can eat 200 kilograms of plant matter and drink around 200 litres of water every day. Elephants are very, very big.
But statistics and adjectives cannot prepare one fully for a close encounter with earth’s largest land animal. Wild elephants command attention and respect like no other. And in Addo Elephant National Park, just 50km north-east of Port Elizabeth, there’s every chance of getting near to them.
I recently went back to Addo to research an article for Getaway Magazine’s February 2013 issue. I have been there already earlier this year in February, but it had rained non-stop for a week (read my blogs on Addo here). So I was keen to get to see the protected area in spring time, with a bit of sunshine warming things up.
I was hosted at the private Gorah Elephant Camp, a luxury lodge situated on an old farm that has since been incorporated into the national park’s main game area. What’s special about Gorah – from a wildlife-viewing perspective – is that the lodge is surrounded by several hectares of grasslands, which are more palatable to grazers than the dominant Albany thicket which grows almost every where else in the main game area of Addo.
So herds of eland, red hartebeest and zebra tend to enjoy hanging around Gorah, which in turn attracts the predators like lion (six were re-introduced into Addo in 2003 after the last lion in the area was killed in 1879). So, your chances of seeing wildlife – especially lion – are excellent at Gorah. In fact, the staff sometimes see the lions drinking straight from the little pool in front of the 1856 manor house’s stoep. (And your chances of putting on a few kilos are also good too…the gourmet meals are reason enough to go to Gorah. )
And of course, there are the elephants. My guide for two days was Martin Bronkhorst and on one of our afternoon drives in the open-topped Landy, we spotted a lone elephant bull. Martin slowed up and stopped just a few metres away.
The bull stopped feeding and came ambling over to us, standing alongside the vehicle. An elephantine eclipse blocked out the sun. His tusk almost scraped the top of the Land-Rover’s bonnet. “He seems to be enjoying our company,” Martin whispered. “I hope he is,” I replied softly.
After a few minutes of not doing anything in particular, the bull obviously decided he needed to be somewhere else. He waved his trunk at us before sauntering off down the road, as if on his way to another appointment.
“Incredible, hey?” Martin smiled. “These Addo elephants are very friendly. And that’s something of a miracle considering everything they’ve been through.”
If it’s true that an elephant never forgets – as they saying goes – then the elephants of Addo must be very forgiving. According to Lyall Watson’s excellent book Elephantoms, in the early 1700s there were probably several thousand elephants ranging across the Eastern and Western Cape.
When the Europeans arrived 400 years ago, the slaughter began. The last elephant in Cape Town was shot in 1652 and hunters moved steadily up the east coast. By 1918, there were probably no more than 130 elephants near Addo, the last major population in the region.
Here the elephants hid away in the dense spekboom, a rubbery, near-impenetrable succulent bush. Surrounded by citrus farmers, the elephants had nowhere to go. At night they’d emerge from the thicket and raid the orchards.
Soon farmers were petitioning government to kill all the elephants. A hunter – Major PJ Pretorius – was employed by the Administrator of the Cape Colony to do so. Between 1919 and 1920, he shot 114 elephants with his 475 Jeffries double-barreled rifle, and captured two calves to be sold to the Boswell circus.
In one instance, Pretorius maimed an elephant with a shot through its spinal column, then climbed onto its back and shot it through the head. In another hunt, he shot 22 elephants in just a few minutes. At the end of the macabre year, just 16 elephants remained.
The public finally woke up to the tragedy, but it took another decade before authorities acknowledged the need to save the last of the Cape’s elephants; in 1931 the Ado Elephant National Park was proclaimed.
For several decades, however, the elephants feared or hated anything that looked or smelt like a human. During the day they would either hide away in the dense spekboom thickets, or chase people and turn cars over when they could. And who would blame them.
Today, however, it seems as if the elephants have forgiven us. More than 600 elephants roam the park, mingling peacefully among the vehicles of around 140 000 tourists a year.
“This is undoubtedly Addo’s most famous success story,” park manager Norman Johnson explained. “It’s why the park was proclaimed, to save these elephants from local extinction. And even though they’re still wild animals, they’ve become habituated to people and vehicles.”
The park has grown considerably since proclamation, today stretching roughly 150 kilometres across a highly diverse set of ecosystems. Addo conserves five of the country’s nine biomes, from semi-desert to fynbos-clad mountains, from temperate forest to the largest coastal dunefield in the southern hemisphere.
These habitats – and their species – have become as important as the elephants, according to Johnson. Other species of note include the endemic flightless dung beetle (crucial for recycling nutrients from animal dung into the soil), the endangered black rhino and the Cape buffalo (which also barely survived the hunting of the 1800s and is one of the few disease-free populations in South Africa).
There are plans to develop an extensive marine protected area of 120 square kilometres adjacent to Addo’s coastal section, which would incorporate the offshore St Croix and Bird islands, which are home to critical populations of endangered African penguins and Cape Gannets.
It would be a fitting finale to Addo’s growth from a small patch of spekboom created to save elephants, to a 2 000 square kilometre conservation area that protects species as diverse as dung beetles and black rhino, cycads and yellowwood trees, great white sharks and southern-right whales.
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