Elephants in South Africa

We have decided to dedicate this post to sharing with you some valuable elephant info.

To understand our elephant situation today, let us take a step back in time to before the advent of firearms in Africa. What is known about elephant populations on our continent during those times? Well, not too much!

By the time the Kruger Park was proclaimed in 1898 most of the elephant populations had been decimated by hunters. Their writings focused on the thrill of hunting rather than the ecology of the area. Addo elephant populations at the same time (1931) had been reduced to eleven elephants. But what were the elephant numbers prior to gunpowder in the Kruger area?

J.Whyte, senior scientist at the Kruger Park, took three indicators of measuring elephant activity:

1. The San (Bushmen) Paintings in the Kruger Park

2. Markings on Baobab trees

3. Records of early traders

The San, whose rock art in the Kruger has been dated to the latter part of the Late Stone Age (7000BC and 300AD), recorded a group of five elephants in a painting in one of the 109 shelters identified in Kruger. Surely such a large and dramatic animal would have been recorded more frequently as it was in other parts of the country, such as the Eastern Cape? Here they even recorded the methods of how they caught them by ‘hamstringing’, a technique of demobilising them.

Evidence of their utilisation of Baobab trees is also lacking in the Kruger area. Whyte records that one Baobab in Kruger still has the very clear inscription, “BRISCOE 1890” carved in the bark. This marking is 110 years old and will probably remain on the tree for another 100 years. Elephant markings on Baobabs are lacking in certain areas where elephant traffic has been restricted, suggesting that elephant activity was minimal, if not non-existent in the area.

Records of early traders made little mention of elephants in what is known today as Kruger. Whyte confirms the records of Francois de Cuiper and his party, the first to visit the area in 1752. His mission was to establish trade in gold, copper and ivory. They saw few elephants and indigenous people informed them that they would have to go further north to get ivory. Louis Trichardt makes no mention of elephants in his diaries, although he does make mention of an elephant hunt in the Lorenco Marques area.

Records of serious hunters who hunted in the Kruger area make no mention of elephant hunts, but definitely make mention of hunts for other game. In 1903 James Stevenson-Hamilton, the park’s first warden, reported that there were no elephants. Why? More to follow in the next issue …

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