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Though most of his adult life Gareth Patterson has been involved in fighting for the greater protection of the African lion – he is best known for his work with the famous George Adamson lions of Born Free, which he returned to the wild, as well as exposing the canned lion hunting industry – the internationally renowned wildlife expert and author of ten books, has also been deeply involved in the preservation of elephants. Most recently the secret elephants of the Knysna forest, in South Africa.

1. How did you find out about the elephants in the Knysna forest?
In the late 1990’s, I exposed the sordid canned lion hunting industry in South Africa (the breeding of captive lions for hunting in fenced areas by international trophy hunters). I was also involved in exposing how thirty baby elephants had been kidnapped from their family herds in Botswana and were held in atrocious conditions in South Africa, destined for the international wildlife trade. During this time, by chance, I visited the Knysna forest (southern Cape, South Africa) for the very first time. This was in 1999. At the time the authorities thought these, the worlds most southerly elephants, were a ‘functionally extinct population,’ believing that only one elderly female elephant still existed.

2. Do you remember the moment that kicked off the start of your research journey into the elephants?
On that 1999 visit, seeing the vast extent of the forest and fynbos habitat, I was determined to return one day to research for myself the status of the elephants. I went back in 2001 and was delighted to discover that thankfully, these elephants were in fact, not extinct.

3. How exactly does one research elephants that are so elusive? What did your research entail?
To research the elephants I set myself four general baseline objectives. These were to establish how many elephants existed, to find out the extent of the range of the elephants, to discover which habitats the elephants were using, and to understand the diet of the elephants. I conducted most of my research on foot. Someone worked out that in the years of the study I had covered about 22,000 kilometers on foot, and this is apparently the equivalent of walking half-way round the world. All I knew was that I had gone through about seven pairs of boots in this time!

4. What were you looking for in trying to find the elephants or signs of them?
The study was very non-invasive. I never set out to track the elephants down. This would have been stressful for them. Instead, I learned about them by locating their tracks and undertaking the study of their diet by analyzing droppings content. Through measuring the tracks, one can determine the age of elephants. Same with circumference measurement of dung balls. I also collaborated with conservation geneticist Lori Eggert, then with the Smithsonian Institution, who had just pioneered a method of determining population numbers of elephants by DNA. The mucus on the outside of fresh droppings is a rich source of DNA. I collected the dung samples, sent them to the USA where Lori did the laboratory work. So it was through a combination of field work and high-tech scientific work that we determined the minimum numbers of the Knysna elephants.

5. What is so special about these elephants?
The most special thing about these elephants is that they brought themselves from the brink without any aid of humankind. Historically there were thousands of elephants in the southern Cape, but the white setters thirst for ivory and so-called ‘sport,’ brought the elephants to the edge of extinction. Then in recent years, unseen and unknown, slowly their numbers grew. During my study, I found clear evidence of the presence of calves.

6. How do forest elephants differ from their savannah counterparts?
These are not forest elephants, but savannah elephants that have adapted to a habitat consisting of forest, forest edge and mountain fynbos.

7. What were some of the signs you found of them being there?
Very early into the study, through the size of tracks and droppings I was finding, it was abundantly clear that there was certainly more than one Knysna elephant existing. Then, three months into the study, one morning I found the fresh footprints of three elephants walking together on a forest road. One small sized, one medium, and one large. Fantastic clear evidence of three Knysna elephants moving together!

8. Describe your first encounter?
During the first few years I had several glimpses of the elephants, or rather I had seen fragments of them, patches of dark flanks, flashes of gray shadows, and dark movements. Then, three years into the study, almost unexpectedly, as I looked down a track, I saw a youngster crossing ahead of me. I assumed that its mother had crossed the track just seconds before. I was stunned by what I had just seen…an extraordinary experience.

9. Any other memorable encounters since?
I discovered a place where the elephants regularly come to drink from a spring. I named the area, ‘the secret place of the elephants.’ I had memorable experiences there. Then one day I decided to stop going there, and have not been there since. It is the elephant’s place, and I did not want my footprints to lead others to that area.

10. Do you feel as though you have a connection with these elephants. Do you think they know you are there watching out for them?
As the elephants leave behind signs of their presence, I was also leaving signs of my presence too — the scent of footprints and where I touched trees for example. I had several incidents that have indicated that the elephants know me as an individual.

11. Do you see yourself as their guardian now?
Though not formally studying them at the moment, my role in recent years has been one of advocacy — just watching out for them, maintaining they are not disturbed and that we leave them in peace.

12. How many are left?
When we did the DNA work, combined with the field work, this indicated that there were at least 12–14 Knysna elephants. I suspect the oldest bull might have died in recent years, but we must accept this as a natural mortality. A younger bull has taken his place, and during 2015 and 2016 I suspect he has been mating.

13. What do you think is the reason for their resilience and survival?
Thankfully they are elusive and secretive and wise in the ways of humankind. This, combined with the dense habitat that shields them from human eyes, has maintained their survival.

14. What is an elephant pathway and what sparked your interest in elephant pathways?
Elephant pathways are probably the oldest roads in Africa. Countless roads we travel in Africa were originally elephant pathways, and some still are. Elephants do not move randomly but are always on their pathways. When they can re-colonise areas of their former habitat, they walk their ancestor’s pathways once again. The pathways had remained there all the time. There is almost a magnetism on elephant pathways.

15. We know elephants are very social, emotional and intelligent beings. How is the endless poaching affecting them?
It affects elephants like genocide affects human beings — the ripping of the social fiber, the loss of the wisdom of the elders, and severe traumatic stress disorder in the survivors.

16. Is there hope? What do you see as the future for elephants and the rest of Africa’s wildlife?
There must be hope for elephants. If we do not have hope for elephants (and if we fail to protect them), there will certainly not be any hope for humankind.

Visit Gareth’s website http://www.garethpatterson.com