Addo Elephant National Park is most famous for its conservation of the last remaining wild elephants in the Eastern Cape. A few hundred years ago there were thousands of the earth’s largest land mammal in this area of South Africa, as well as plenty of other wildlife like lions, leopards, rhinos, buffaloes and springbok. But rapid colonial expansion after 1820 meant most of this diverse landscape was transformed into dairy farms and citrus fruit estates.
The elephants had a penchant for oranges in particular, and understandably they couldn’t resist raiding the farmers’ crops. The farmers got fed up, and put pressure on the government to sort out the problem. The first solution was predictable – for the times. The Administrator of the Cape Province – Sir Frederick de Waal – started paying hunters to exterminate the elephants.
In particular, a certain bloodthirsty Major Pretorius shot 120 elephants in his first eleven months in the Addo area. During one hunt, according to the archives, he was ‘once forced to lame an elephant by shooting it through the vertebral column, then like lightning he jumped on the beast’s back, ran to its head and killed it with a shot through the neck.’ In another instance Pretorius shot 16 elephants within 30 seconds – or so his journal records.
Eventually, after decades of hunting and harassment, the remaining elephants – just 11 of them in the whole region – retreated to the almost impenetrable thicket of the Addo region, where hunters and humans couldn’t reach them. Yet they still made their forays into the farmers’ fields at night to raid the crops.
By that stage fortunately, the public had woken up to the tragedy, and quickly there were calls for the establishment of a reserve. In 1931, the national park was proclaimed, extending just over 2000 hectares. However, the reserve wasn’t fenced, so the big animals still posed a problem, frequently moving onto farm lands.
The reserve’s ranger Harold Trollope wrote in 1931 how farmers and their staff still tried to kill the elephants: ‘Farmers in some instances fired at the elephants on sight often wounding them and supplied boys with rifles giving instructions that they were to shoot any elephant they came across, and that these orders were carried out. The elephants were shot at in a most cowardly manner, from safe distances, as for instance across a kloof, but never at close quarters, and were it not for the protection offered by…the difficult bush, the Addo elephants would not have existed today.’
Elephants in Addo are accustomed to vehicles, unlike in the past
Trollope succeeded in driving the remaining elephants into the area marked for the reserve, and for the most part he and his team of park rangers managed to keep them safe. But the elephants had to wait until 1951