Forest legends: the elephants of Knysna

Skeleton of a male elephant in the Forest Legends Museum, Diepwalle, near Knysna

Skeleton of a male elephant in the Forest Legends Museum, Diepwalle, near Knysna

Vasco da Gama saw elephants at Mossel Bay when he landed there in 1497, and in 1876 the colonial forest service’s Conservator of Forests in the Southern Cape, Captain Christopher Harison, estimated that between 400 and 600 of them were living in the Knysna-Tsitsikamma area.

Today, though, the official position of SANParks – which manages the 155,000 hectare open-access Garden Route National Park – is that there’s only one Knysna Elephant left.

It’d be desperately sad if that was true – but one author at least has genetic evidence to show that it isn’t

Elephant man

The one thing that all the scholars seem to agree on is that elephants weren’t originally forest-dwellers: they retreated into them as a result of many (human) factors – hunting, farming, the Great Fire of 1869 (which burned huge sections of the area between George and Humansdorp), and so on.

And yet, having retreated from humans, they became the stuff of human legends.

Dalene Matthee wrote about them in her famous forest novels (Kringe in ‘n Bos, Fiela se Kind, Toorbos, and Moerbeibos); they’ve been the subject of scientific studies and popular works of non-fiction (Margot Mackay’s The Knysna Elephants and their Forest Home); and they’ve been the subject of truly cheesy marketing campaigns (remember when Knysna sold itself as ‘the Elefun Town’?).

Beginning in 2001, though, independent researcher and author Gareth Paterson spent seven years looking for them – and conservation geneticist Lori Eggert positively identified at least five females from dung samples he collected. (For the full story, read Gareth’s remarkable ‘The Secret Elephants,’ which is published by Penguin. Gareth also leads visits to the forests – see NOTE below.)

Forest Legends Museum

Sadly – and since they’re so good at eluding even the best of trackers – you’re very unlikely to see the Knysna elephants. But if you want to know more about them, there’s a tiny, three-room museum deep in the forests that’s dedicated to them.

Although it opened some years ago, I visited the Forest Legends Museum at Diepwalle (on the R339, 16 km from the N2 national road) for the first time only in June, 2016, when SANParks launched its ‘Rooted in Time’ self-drive tour of the forests’ heritage sites.

In it, I found a room that shows how the woodcutters of the late 19th Century would have lived, a room with photos and books of the plants and wildlife of the forests, and a room dedicated to the skeleton of a male elephant that was discovered near the Garden Of Eden in 1983, and that had probably been dead for about ten years. (If you remember Knysna from back in the late 80s, this is the same skeleton that used to stand in the window of Knysna Tourism, at 40 Main Street.)

And across the lawn from the Museum – an old forester’s cottage that’s now a tea-room, which, the staff told me, is open every day from 9 to 5.

Go there.

I swear you’ll feel the spirits of the forests.


NOTE: Visit the forests with Gareth Patterson

From his e-mail:

“The Forest Experience is a 45 km drive, incorporated with short exploratory forest strolls, and takes three to four hours. During this time, I tell about my long years of discovery into the lives of these elusive and amazing elephants. I talk about my findings on their diet, range, numbers, and how they brought themselves back from the very brink without the aid of humankind. The forest experience a verbal and visual interpretation of my book, The Secret Elephants (Penguin).

“It is not a search for the elephants (they must be left in peace and undisturbed), but an experience into their magical and mystical world.

“This is a very personalised forest experience, whereupon I accompany participants in their own vehicle.

“The Secret Elephants Forest Experience takes place on most Saturdays and Sundays, but can also be arranged for during the week, depending on dates.

“Introductory cost of the forest experience is R650 per person (excluding SANParks conservation fee. SA citizens R24. Non-citizens R64).

“Should you like to make a booking, do let me know, and I will email you the forest experience information sheet with booking details.

“Here is the link to an Africa Geographic article about The Secret Elephants Forest Experience:

“Best regards,

“Gareth –