Picture: Normally only seen in the distance, this still from Ryan’s video footage brings us that much closer to the last Knysna Elephant.
There was a buzz on the news and social media wires last week when a conservationist/ filmmaker Ryan Davy announced his emotional ‘meeting’ with the lone Knysna Elephant – this after months and months of tracking her through the dense indigenous forest.
We asked Ryan to share details of his quest to find Knysna’s elusive old lady, and he kindly penned the article below.
At first glance, the Garden Route wilderness can look extremely intimidating. A veil of dense forest that stretches for hundreds of kilometres in every direction. The idea that one elephant roams these vast woodlands is an enigma on its own, and the idea that I was to find her was considered simply near impossible by those who heard of my ambitious quest.
What if I discover a carcass, or worse, a half-living creature, unable to move after being swallowed by a gorge? These steep slopes drop off without warning and disappear into black water stained by roots that dig deep into the forest bed, holding it firmly in the ground like one giant underground net. Other thoughts crossed my racing brain, such as, is she aggressive? Is she lonely? Where to even begin my search?
I wasn’t going to try and find her immediately, I was going to earn it, and by doing that, I would need to learn more about her and tap into her stream of energy as she wanders lonesome through the wilderness.
I don’t rely on hearsay; I rely on the ground, which speaks an encyclopaedia of facts. So that’s where I was looking, the tracks, the scat, the water sources, the vegetation and, of course, the weather. If you can tap into the environment emotionally and feel its stream of energy, then you can pretty easily imagine what you would do if you were an elephant. Why would she go to a particular area? Why would she drink from here and not from there? Why would she eat this and not that? These questions continuously ran through my brain, especially at night in that deathly silent forest.
After 12 weeks, I got a break. By tracking her dung and footprints, broken branches and mud pools, I could finally isolate her territory, allowing me to move in closer using a tracker’s technique of walking in circles after identifying a footprint or scat. In theory, this should allow me to determine which direction she moved to next based on the last point identified. However, it doesn’t always work.
Following tracks is extremely challenging in that thick undergrowth. The only real way to track her was from dung droppings and broken branches. An elephant usually drops dung quite frequently; however, when it’s in the thick vegetation, 30m one way or the other could be the difference between getting lost or losing her trail altogether.
And I had to go quietly – carefully clearing the area before placing each foot so that I didn’t break any pieces of foliage lying on the ground that might set off a ‘bush alarm’, basically animals and birds that will warn others of impending danger. Equally, every branch had to be gently pushed aside – some riddled with thorns – to clear a path for the rest of my body and backpack to pass through. Being quiet in the forest is the only way to track an elephant.
I was completely alone the entire time. I couldn’t cook anything because the smell of food might push her further away. I couldn’t eat crunchy food because my chewing might prevent me from hearing that subtle sound which could lead me closer to her. Such isolation might sound wonderful for one or two days, but after several cold and wet weeks, I began to get an insight into how she spends each day. Surely no sentient living creature should have to endure a lifetime of such solitude? That didn’t make sense to me, so the mission became more complex and the pressure to locate her more involved.
Finding her became an obsession for me. If speculation that she is in her forties is true, she would know the forest intimately, sensing every time something enters her domain as it would change the frequency of the forest. I was able to tap into that frequency, and one day, I stepped into her domain. I could feel she was nearby, and I’m sure she could feel the same. It became a waiting game, who would make the first move?
It is a distinct sound when an elephant breaks a branch or moves through the forest, especially one that is moving discreetly. My soul shivered from excitement, and I immediately knew I had found her. I didn’t know how she would react to an intrusion, but I assumed she would run. I didn’t want her to hurt herself in the process, so it was a case of following the sounds for a few days until I would intercept her movements through a clearing, and that’s when it happened. I was shaking to the core, my heart pounding volumes of blood in a single heartbeat, to the point that I could not keep the camera still. I was so excited to finally make visual contact with the most elusive elephant in Africa. The moment she penetrated the thick vegetation, my camera was rolling. She popped her head out like a duck from an eggshell. She waited as if she knew something was amiss but couldn’t pin it. I manoeuvred slowly behind a tree with the camera slightly protruding from its barked edge, only enough to capture the moment. She punched out of the forest like a dragon from its lair, and there she stood, in all her glory. She was smaller than I had imagined but in good health. She stood quietly for a few minutes, knowing very well that her senses were telling her something was close by, but it was not threatening. It was one of the most amazing moments of my environmental vacation. Two sentient beings metres from each other, in complete harmony, unable to communicate simply because of a divided language but one that we equally understood. Two loners searching for something, and whatever it was, remained our secret. After a short moment, she slipped into the thickets as if a window into another realm had opened for a few moments and then closed again. She was gone. This left me with the understanding that I can honestly say with an open heart was a feeling of pure sadness. It was like she had left the window open just enough for me to see inside her soul, and the loneliness I felt there was haunting. It has fuelled me even more to find her what she needs – a family.
Of course, tourism relies on the fact that the solitary elephant is a big question mark. The mystery is appealing, but we must stop playing this game now because there is a more serious issue. Yes, there is an elephant in the forest, and yes, it is alone, and yes, we must fix it because that is not only unethical but also cruel. It is a social creature that relies on the dynamics of a social structure to survive in a stable ecosystem.
The biggest mistake we can make in life is to assume someone else is assigned the task for which we are all responsible. Sadly I have had zero response from any of the relevant authorities.
I urge the community to reach out and demand an answer from your authoritative environmental organisation. It is your world, too; you live in it; it’s as much your right as it is hers, and what right does anyone have to claim ownership of such an incredibly magnificent species? What right do we have to remain silent when there is a fellow sentient in jeopardy because of what other humans have done? We have interfered. We have deprived this living creature of its right to be what it is designed to be, and now because of us, it lives alone, and nothing is more depleting to the soul than to live in isolation, no matter how beautiful your surroundings may be.
The very creature God has designed to fulfil a purpose in this beautiful, magnificent, once thriving ecosystem is now completely unbalanced because of the lack of integrity and passion behind those who have been granted the responsibility of looking after her well-being. Shame on us. If we do not take the necessary steps, we have all failed. Right now, as you read this, there is an incredibly complex and emotionally dynamic creature living out her days all alone in that deep silent dark forest.
If I were her, I’d prefer not to exist. But we are not elephants; we are humans, which puts us in a position to help, so let’s help!
Ryan has worked in the conservation realm for over three decades, starting his vocation in an anti-poaching unit at the age of 17 in Weenen, Kwazulu Natal. He now manages a herd of 23 elephants in Zululand in a 4000-hectare conservancy known as Bonamanzi Game Reserve. He has been researching the dynamics of sentient creatures for the last few years, specifically elephants and has travelled far and wide in search of the various subspecies throughout Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique and Angola.