There’s an elephant in the room

Emotions run high over plan to ship in some friends for Fiela, Knysna forest’s last pachyderm

Fiela was captured in this photograph by film-maker Ryan Davy
SOLITARY LIFE: Fiela was captured in this photograph by film-maker Ryan Davy

I recently wrote about a group of people who in all good faith believe more elephants should be introduced into the Knysna forest to keep the one and only elephant company — they held a public meeting and since then the story has developed a life of its own.

No sooner had the article appeared in print in the Knysna-Plett Herald than a storm of opinion hit social media as Knysna people went into a frenzy — the naysayers who fiercely oppose the move, but also those who think it’s a good idea, took to Facebook to share their views.

These views ranged from “leave her alone!” to “you can see from her face [the image supplied] that she is lonely ... look at her tears.”

The word anthropomorphism played out to the very letter of its meaning.

Media around the country picked up on the story.

A petition was started to leave the lone elephant alone.

SANParks, which is custodian of the forest and the elephant, is less than happy with the outcry and publicity about the lone elephant getting company (or with me) because it is still doing extensive research into the issue and doesn’t have much to say about it at this point.

It wasn’t ready for the public and media onslaught after this public meeting.

I have been shouted at and been told I have an agenda.

A local resident phoned and yelled at me so loudly that her voice carried right out of the phone to all those in the vicinity.

I have been given cold stares and attitude.

In short, the messenger, which is all I am, has been shot more than once.

This hullabaloo all started with a meeting organised by a group of conservationists who call themselves Herd Instinct (HI).

Turns out this gathering held at the Knysna Angling Club on March 14 was packed with about 250 people, which is a big turnout in this town.

It was a very long meeting, a detailed proposal was explained, and eventually at the point of questions and answers I left, only to find I was parked in after a long day at work — but that was just the beginning of my week of elephants.

At the meeting, HI presented its case for introducing more elephants into the forest so that the lone elephant it has chosen to call Fiela will have company. 

Herd Instinct is made up of environmentalist and filmmaker Ryan Davy, journalist Ivo Vegter, Rod Ward Able, described as a passionate Knysna resident, and Jarrett Joubert, who is a nature conservationist and the manager of The African Elephant Research Unit.

Joubert said HI had been planning this meeting for a long time in the hope that SANParks would come on board, but after many months of efforts to communicate with it, the meeting had to go ahead without it.

Joubert said he’d had no idea there would be such a big turnout at the meeting and it was encouraging as it showed the “passion locals have for our natural heritage”.

In a nutshell, HI proposes that three to five female elephants, between 10 and 35 years old, who presently live at the Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve, be moved into the Knysna forests.

HI says this is urgent because the 70-year-old female is lonely.

“For a highly social and intelligent species like an elephant, this is essentially a sentence of solitary confinement,” Joubert said.

“Considering her estimated age and circumstances of living, a measure of urgency is justified.

“The national norms and standards for the management of elephants says every reasonable effort must be made to safeguard elephants from abuse and neglect.

“To leave a highly social and intelligent animal alone, deprived by human actions of a herd, is as definitive a form of neglect as imaginable and in blatant contravention of this.”

In the past this old elephant has commonly been called Oupoot, but HI has decided to call her Fiela — her namesake, they say aptly taken from author Dalene Matthee’s book Fiela se Kind.

Joubert maintains that: “Fiela is lonely and humans are responsible for the crash of the regional elephant population (through historic mismanagement, hunting, and poaching practices), and should now atone for this by giving Fiela a herd by introducing younger female elephants.”

HI says Fiela may still live for 20 years and even still be fertile into the senior years of her life.

Should this introduction of females (better suited to socialise together in a herd) prove to be a success, further select future introductions could even be considered and maybe even one day breed in the forest.

The elephants the HI proposes introducing to the forest are owned by Ian Withers of the Knysna Elephant Park who is willing to donate them to this project and offer the financial support required to carry it out.

What is significant is that HI and Withers have also undertaken to remove the elephants at no cost should Fiela not like them.

The Knysna Elephant Park has 30 years’ experience in successfully managing elephants and is of the opinion that giving Fiela company is the right thing to do.

The HI guys say they have done extensive research into this proposal and the elephants they would like to introduce into the Knysna forest range have been carefully evaluated and chosen.

They have been semi-habituated while at the Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve.

What this means is though they are free-roaming, they do receive some food and human contact from their elephant guides before their daily foraging.

“Their familiarised nature to humans makes them ideal candidates for the Knysna forest, posing a much lower risk to people than the introduction of wild elephants ... these elephants are also accustomed to the regional forest and fynbos vegetation and the climate, and come from a stable herd, factors not afforded to the elephants involved in the reintroduction attempt of 1994,” HI said, referring to the disastrous introduction of elephants from the Kruger Park, with one dying and the others subsequently being removed.

Davy took four three-week expeditions into the forest to find Fiela and he eventually found and photographed her.

HI says signs that Fiela is lonely include occasional visits to herds of cows on farms near her territory while “she cosies up to big forestry vehicles”.

Should it go ahead, the introduction of these elephants and the response from Fiela will be carefully monitored with cameras, tracking methods on each elephant, a four-wheeler vehicle and drones and non-invasive research methods, HI says.

“Dung samples can be collected to test the stress levels of the elephants involved [both of Fiela and the newcomers], to analyse their reactions to new company, or in the case of the introduced herd, their new environment too.”

At this point SANParks says: “Since confirmation of the presence of a wild female elephant remaining in the Knysna forest and fynbos under its management, evidence-based decision-making has required SANParks to embark on two types of assessments (sociological and ecological) that will guide future management on the existence of elephant/s in the area.

“Most respondents advised that there must be a cautious management approach that is informed by inputs from elephant specialists, followed by landowners and conservation authorities.”

Joubert states that one must ask when the execution of such an approach would commence into an actionable plan.

HI proposes an actionable plan that can resolve the matter in months if successful, and if not, remains fully reversible and can restore the status quo, it says.

‘This adaptive management approach is a golden opportunity and comes at zero cost for SANParks.

“Science is not a justifiable excuse for inaction, particularly over decades of the life of the last forest elephant where time could not be of greater importance.

“It’s a low risk and if it doesn’t work out then it’s reversible.”

Long and short of this story is that SANParks will be the organisation to call the shots.

It will do this only when its extensive research is concluded.

The petition to block this move will probably still grow wings.

And as for me, I will do what I did from the word go: Report the facts as presented to me by HI and SANParks.

I have no opinion whatsoever and I have been doing this job long enough to know that whatever I feel does not belong in a news report anyway.

So, whatever is decided for Fiela has nothing to do with me, but I promise to keep readers updated.



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