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by Cheryl Goodenough

Inspired by the Knysna Elephants

The Knysna elephants are featured in Gareth Patterson's latest book The Secret Elephants, as well as in a documentary inspired by the uplifting story of these animals. Gareth calls them the ‘secret' elephants because “mysteriously and unseen and unaided by humans they have almost magically survived”.

The Secret Elephants describes Gareth's findings from research into these animals, which were thought in 1999 to be a ‘functionally extinct population', with just one old female elephant remaining.

“The reality, I discovered, was that a small breeding population exists. These elephants have brought themselves back from the brink,” says Gareth.

The most significant discovery made during Gareth's research, he says, was learning that we have a viable, although also very vulnerable, population of elephants in Knysna.

“Also of significance was that the elephants were not confined to forced permanence within the forest, but range freely in the mountain fynbos areas. The discoveries on the elephants diet was also significant, illustrating that, unlike previously thought, they have a diverse and varied diet. This includes their eating on a routine basis a medicinal mushroom never before known to be eaten by elephants. This suggests that the elephants might even be self-medicating to maintain their health. The actual science of animal self-medication, zoophamacognosy, (fantastic word!) is barely a decade old, and is a very exciting field.”

The discoveries about the diet of the elephants have astounded lay people and scientists alike, according to Gareth. “The Knysna elephants have always been well loved, but the positive news of their true status has delighted people. People have been inspired generally, as well as personally, by the elephant's story as told in the book and seen in the documentary, The Search for the Knysna Elephants.”

Gareth says that the documentary tells the work of his friends, the forest guards, Wilfred Oraai and Karel Maswatie, who have been monitoring the elephants on foot for over 15 years. “Wilfred and Karel were the unsung heroes of the present day Knysna elephants story. Unseen, just like the elephants, they have for years quietly learned about the mysterious elephants, covering thousands of kilometers on foot. They really have a deep love for the elephants, and this is very apparent in the documentary.”

Gareth describes how the film ends with what they call ‘the miracle footage'. “On the very last day of weeks filming, but not seeing a single Knysna elephant, an amazing thing happened. Filmmaker Mark van Wijk and the guards had tracked an elephant all day, but failed to see it. It was the end of the day and they had return to the vehicle to head back to camp. As Mark drove, ever the filmmaker, he remarked to Wilfred how beautiful the light was. Then Wilfred interjected, ‘There he is Mark, there he is!' And there he was indeed, a Knysna elephant stepping out onto a faint road 70 metres ahead of them. Mark grabbed his camera and began filming from a beanbag he placed on the car's bonnet. And the elephant just stayed there in the opening. We all feel that this elephant was letting himself to be seen. It is the most extraordinary footage and brings a lump to the throat and a moistening of your eyes when you see it. Fantastic!”

Gareth's passion for wildlife evolved as he grew up in Nigeria, Malawi and Botswana. His first job in wildlife was as a trainee game ranger in the Sabi game reserve bordering the Kruger National Park at the age of 17.

He worked for almost 25 years with lions and says that when he first started to work with lions it was thought that about 250,000 lions existed, while now there are likely to be less than 12,000. “Loss of habitat, fragmentation of populations, poisoning, poaching and the trophy hunting are the main cause of this drastic decline. I wrote eight books on my life with lions, including, Last of the Free, and With My Soul Amongst Lions, which tell how after the murder of my friend George Adamson of Born Free fame, I rescued George's last lion cub orphans and returned then to the wilds in Botswana,” he says.

Lions are the animals that are closest to Gareth's heart and he'll continue to create awareness of their plight and do what he can for individuals. “Last week I was attempting to find a sanctuary situation for an orphaned cub rescued in the Middle East. Recently I was adding my voice condemning the South African government for allowing the legal export of lion bones. So the lion and the issues are always there.”

He continues: “In fact it was lions that brought me in a sense to Knysna for the first time. With the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) we rescued four lions when I exposed the sordid canned lion hunting industry in South Africa (the trophy hunting of captive raised lions in fenced off areas in which they cannot escape from). We created a huge natural habitat sanctuary for these lions here in the southern Cape. When the project was complete, I decided to visit the Knysna forest for the first time, and it was then that the seeds were sown to undertake research on the elephants.”

Gareth's current work also includes a pilot project that intended to focus on leopards and to utilise remote cameras in a non-invasive way to monitor animals. Positioned just outside the southern boundary of the newly proclaimed Garden Route National Park, the cameras soon captured images of other animals, including some – like honey badgers – that are seldom seen. As a result, Gareth has broadened the project into a mammal diversity project.

What is Gareth's hope for the Knysna elephants? “My biggest hope is that the Knysna elephants thrive and increase in numbers. Unlike other areas in South Africa, here there is ample habitat to sustain a much larger population. Also these are the only truly unfenced elephant population in the whole country. So if all goes well, hopefully these amazing elephants can look forward to a good future.”

Exhilarating Moments

“Finding the little footprints of a six month old Knysna elephant calf just three months after starting the project (2001) was a very exhilarating moment. This proved that a breeding population existed in the forests and mountain fynbos of Knysna. Another exhilarating moment early on in the project was tracking an elephant as it walked up a mountain and out of the forest. Suddenly I found myself on top of the mountain with the elephant's tracks in front of me. I could see for miles around me, the forest below and, in the distance, the Indian Ocean. This moment was important also as it was an early indication that the elephants were not (as wrongly thought in the past) confined like refugees to the forest.”

The Secret Elephant's Forest Experience

Since the launch of the book, Gareth has started The Secret Elephant's Forest Experience during which he leads small groups of people (no more than eight) into the forest four times a month. “It is a holistic experience looking into all facets of that wild world. Early on I noticed how the forest has a spiritual effect on the participants. People love it. It is almost like a mini eco-pilgrimage through the forest,” says Gareth.

The Gareth Patterson Wildlife Foundation

“The Foundation has broad aims. They are to undertake wildlife research and wildlife protection (I believe that research should not be purely for research sake, but a strong component of advocacy should be part of the research) and the promotion of indigenous Africa environmentalism, as well as to promote the concept of wildlife corridors, to link protected wildlife areas.”

All the Details

The Secret Elephants book has been released in Australia by Penguin Australia. If copies are not available in your local bookshop, you can order. The Search for the Knysna Elephants documentary is available in a boxed DVD set from geta@nhuafrica.com.

For information on The Secret Elephants Forest Experience email rozannesavory@telkomsa.net.

More information on Gareth is available on http://www.garethpatterson.com/.

Posted in books |
Posted by Cheryl Goodenough
08 Jun 2010

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I have recently returned from South Africa, and joined Gareth through the mystical Knysna forests to learn about the world of these enigmatic elephants... and more. The dense forest embraces you as you begin to walk along elephant pathways and the sounds of trees "talking", the array of mushrooms you discover and the knowledge that is shared with you via Gareths stories ... amounts to a unique and very special experience indeed. I highly recommend the book - The Secret Elephants and to take this walk, it will open your eyes and heart to the awe of Nature, something I believe we all crave and need in todays modern world. Thank you Cheryl for this article, well written by yourself and Gareth. All the best!
Rating: 5 / 5
by Vanessa on 29 Jun 2010

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