Along the leaf litter spoor

Gareth Patterson’s ninth book is a gentle, meandering account of his search for the elusive Knysna elephant, the country’s only free-ranging pachyderm.

But his conclusion in The Secret Elephants (Penguin South Africa) that there is a herd of about nine elephants, including two bulls and two calves, is controversial.

South African National Parks (SANParks) released a position paper last year stating there is “no reliable evidence” that more than one Knysna elephant, a female, remains.

Nothing has made them change this stand. Not DNA analysis on elephant dung Patterson collected, which found the samples came from five females. Not footage of a Knysna bull elephant captured in a documentary produced by Natural History Unit Africa and Animal Planet that was screened at cinemas in Knysna and Cape Town.

Interviewed at the cabin he rents near the Gouna forest, Patterson says he has good working relationships with SANParks forestry guards and researchers. But from the day he first set foot in the vast Afromontane forests, he says: “I thought, how could there be only one elephant?”
A self-taught naturalist — “I want to learn from nature, I want to learn from the behaviour of animals” — Patterson began his working life cleaning the swimming pool at a Lowveld game lodge. He graduated to game drives, environmental education and working with lions in Botswana and Kenya.

He fits the mould of an old-fashioned explorer — working independently, keeping notes and journals, writing books about his experiences and penning poetry and painting wildlife studies on the side. “Try anything but not particularly great at anything,” he quips in his British accent.

Eight years ago he started a largely self-funded investigation into the Knysna elephants.

“The forest leaf litter makes spoor hard to see. You have to think laterally,” he says. He examined broken branches and uprooted vegetation for signs of elephant feeding, judged animals’ height by the mud rubbings they left on tree trunks, picked apart dung to examine what they were eating, measured the circumference of dung balls to gauge the ages of sub-adult elephants and sent dung samples for DNA analysis.

Patterson found the elephants were not confined to the Knysna forests, but range and feed over a 600km² area that includes plantations, fynbos and mountain slopes.

State scientists attribute the elephants’ demise to nutrient-poor forest vegetation. Patterson found forest species comprise only 11 of the 250 species elephants eat. A favourite food, restio, is rich in phosphorous, essential for fertility.

Half the dung balls contained chewed particles of a tree mushroom, Ganoderma applanatum, used in Chinese and African medicine, which is high in Vitamin B and has antiviral, antibacterial and anti-parasitic properties.

The DNA dung analysis by American conservation geneticist Lori Eggert found the elephants were related — probably a mother and daughter and three half-sisters — but displayed a greater genetic diversity than the Addo elephants.

In the book Patterson describes being at an isolated water spring when he heard two elephants approaching. Rather than stay and get a photograph of them side by side, he chose to withdraw.

Asked about this decision, Patterson says the DNA analysis was a more accurate — and less intrusive — way of assessing the size of the herd.

Another time he heard an elephant feeding at the edge of the forest and 50m away saw the trunk of another elephant emerge. “I didn’t even get my binoculars out, I just watched. I thought, shoo, I’m blessed and I walked away feeling very nice that the elephants had not been disturbed.”

Patterson — who came to Africa when he was 18 months old and spent his childhood in Nigeria and Malawi, apart from two years in a cold British boarding school — is best known for returning George Adamson’s orphaned lions to the wild and exposing canned lion hunting.

But he says elephants have always been an integral part of his bush experiences. He has campaigned against elephant culling and conducted a transfrontier elephant survey.

Still, the iconic photographs of Patterson remain those of a young, shirtless man with sun-bleached hair and tanned arms wrapped around a lion’s neck.

Now 46, paler and fully dressed — a scraggly ponytail emerging from the khaki cap he wears indoors and out — Patterson says he does not miss the physicality of his interaction with the lions.

“My lions were such a part of me that it’s almost as if I carry that aspect with me all the time, there was never a separation.”
One wonders how the Garden Route measures up to the wilds of the savannah.

“In Knysna we cringe at all the development but at night to the north of where I live you can stand on a hill and not see a single light. As much as I have the spirit of wilderness in the remote areas of Botswana, I do find it out there in the mountains. And the fact that it’s not fenced, the potential, we’re very lucky.”

He has no plans to leave the area soon. “I would love to see these elephants declared a national or international living heritage, to be protected and nurtured.

“There mustn’t be a rush of people trying to see them, because then it’s almost like we’re hunting them all over again. They must just be left alone because they created their own recovery without any help.”

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