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Hikers come across Knysna’s mythical forest beast

PLETTENBERG BAY NEWS - A Knysna elephant was spotted by the Plett Panters, a group of retired folk who belong to The University of the Third Age (U3A), whilst they were hiking in the Knysna Forest on Thursday May 5.

Contrary to initial reports that two elephants were sighted, only one set of tracks has been confirmed, based on reports by experienced trackers Wilfred Oraai and Karel Maswatie.

Over the years, the elusive Knysna elephants have taken on an almost mythical quality, with many skeptics doubting their very existence.

Knysna elephants were described as "functionally extinct" until September 2000 when forest guard, Wilfred Oraai, encountered and photographed a young bull from a distance of some thirty metres.

Clearly this young bull had parents and as such it was impossible that only one female existed as was commonly accepted.
In 2001 Gareth Patterson, author of The Secret Elephants, began an independent study of the Knysna elephants. He found many signs suggesting that "far from dying out, the Knysna elephants are quietly and secretly, holding their own".
According to Robyn Eidelman, the U3A hiking coordinator, an elephant was spotted in a field of ferns, apparently foraging on the ridge opposite to where the group was hiking.
Colleen Milligan spotted what she then thought to be the first elephant.

Some of the hiking group were quite far ahead of the rest and Milligan wanted to tell them about the elephant without making a noise, so she ran down the hill. Milligan laughs as she recounts that the rest of the group thought she was joking. "It was so exciting! We were like a bunch of school kids tearing around there," says Milligan.
Patterson’s DNA research in collaboration with conservation geneticist Lori Eggert, in conjunction with his fieldwork, has established that at least five young females exist. He refers to the Knysna elephants as "the only unfenced elephant population in South Africa".

With reference to the recent elephant sighting, Patterson says, "I think it is an absolute celebration." He went on to explain the importance of leaving these elephants in peace and respecting them as survivors.

Zanemvula Gozongo, manager of communication for the Garden Route National Park, expressed thanks to the U3A members for their valuable information and quick response in alerting SANParks of their sighting.
"The Scientific Services Department of the Garden Route National Park immediately dispatched a team, consisting of a scientist, Lizette Moolman, and two rangers to the reported site, the same day," said Gozongo.

Moolman was accompanied by Gaby Bland, one of the U3A members who saw the elephants, to the area where the sighting was made. The rangers took photographs of spoor in the area, but according to Gozongo the spoor was unfortunately unclear.
An elephant was again sighted close to the original sighting location, on Monday, May 16. "Without any doubt it is the same animal," says a local Knysna forest expert.

ARTICLE: CANDICE LUDICK
08:00 (GMT+2), Thu, 19 May 2011
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