Addo Elephant Park

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe story of elephants in the Eastern Cape is one of tragedy and triumph. In the early part of the 19th Century, the great herds of elephants and other species had been all but decimated by nomadic Xhosa hunters.  Although the herds that remained were small in number, British and Afrikaaner farmers began colonizing the area around the park by 1831, stressing the populations as they competed for water and crops.  The conflict culminated in 1919 when the government was called upon to exterminate the remaining elephants; a Major Pretorius shot 114 elephants between 1919 and 1920, leaving less than 12 animals in this part of the Eastern Cape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the South African public learned of the extermination of these animals, public opinion changed, and legislation was proposed to establish the park to conserve them.  The park was dedicated in 1931 with just over 2,000 hectares (4950 acres) and  22 elephants.  Conflicts continued between elephants and farmers because of the inability of the park to keep the animals within the park boundaries.  It wasn’t until 1954 when the park manager at the time, Graham Armstrong,  created an elephant-proof fence using tram rails and lift cables.  This Armstrong fence solved the conflict with escaped elephants, and is still used around the park today.  The park has grown, a bit, and now encompasses about 180,000 hectares (444,700 acres) with a mandate to conserve the provincial biodiversity.  Addo, now, is South Africa’s third largest conservation area and park.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAddo Elephant National Park is located in the dense Eastern Cape Bush of South Africa, a malaria free part of the country.  Currently, there are somewhere near 550 elephants within the confines of the park’s boundaries, and very few of these ever have been able to breach the Armstrong fence.  There is one infamous bull elephant, Harpoor, who wasn’t fond of humans and, on occasion, forced the park staff to run to safety when Hapoor made an appearance.  Harpoor ‘s dominance stretched from 1944 to 1968, and was the first to escape the park in 1968 at which time he was shot. You still can see him in the park’s visitor’s center; his elephant head is mounted in the restaurant.

Addo_Elephants_APR13Driving back from the Northern Cape after a week of field work, the R342 crosses through Addo Elephant Park.  Normally, though, few animals can be seen from this roadway.  We were lucky in early April of 2013, late in the afternoon, to experience a “poor man’s game drive” and see a herd of approximately 30-40 elephants—adults, juveniles, and babies—grazing in a field with zebra, on our return to Grahamstown.

The ecosystem that is Addo stretches from parts of the Karoo semi-arid desert, over the Zuurberg Mountains, through the Sundays River valley, extending to the coast between the mouths of the Sundays and Bushman’s Rivers. In addition to elephants, lions, buffalo, black rhino, spotted hyena, leopard, a variety of antelope and zebra species are found almost exclusively in the park.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne unique species found only in Addo Elephant Park and a few other localities in South Africa is the flightless dung beetle, Circellium bacchus.  Dung beetles feed on the droppings of large mammals, and either eat fresh dung at the spot where it dropped or roll it into a ball and bury it to eat later. Because the elephant populations are not migratory, these dung beetles do not have to migrate with the herds; elsewhere in Africa, dung beetles are winged because of the long distances covered by the herds they accompany. Flightless dung beetles are large, 22 to 47 mm long, and easily can be spotted from a distance.  These insects are not wingless, only flightless.  They do have vestigial wings. Prior to the decimation of big animals in the region, the species was widely distributed, extending north into the Transvaal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConservation efforts in South Africa have identified Addo to play a central role in preserving the country’s biodiversity.  There are plans to expand the park into a 264,000 hectare (652,300 acre) mega-park, including a proposal to add a marine reserve along the coast of the Indian Ocean.  The area identified includes islands that are home to the world’s largest breeding populations of Cape gannets and the second largest breeding population of African penguins, after Boulders in Simonstown.