Addo Elephant National Park: from hell to paradise

Posted by Scott Ramsay on 30 May 2012

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.’

Addo Elephant National Park

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 for complete sanctuary from the guns of farmers.

At that stage, the reserve’s ranger Graham Armstrong had devised a unique type of fence constructed of railway sleepers sunk several feet into the ground, and attached to these were old wire cables supplied free-of-charge by the Otis lift company in Port Elizabeth. This design proved so effective that eventually the entire reserve was fenced off, and the elephants weren’t able to break out – finally, after a few hundred years, both the elephants and people were happy. And today, the Armstrong fence is still used.

Today the Addo Elephant National Park conserves the Big Five, including lions (reintroduced into the area from Kgalagadi, and buffalo, which, unlike the lions, were never exterminated). However, the emphasis has shifted from species conservation towards habitat protection and restoration.  The huge increase in the park’s size from 2 000 hectares to more than 180 000 hectares is indicative of the national trend to conserving “corridors” of biodiversity. (Addo is now the third-largest national park in the country, although Garden Route National Park is not far behind).

Similar to the Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve and Gouritz Initiative, Addo conserves, by design, a marvelous diversity of natural habitat: stretching from Nama Karoo in the Darlington Dam section in the far north, to fynbos and forest in the mountainous Zuurberg wilderness area, to subtropical thicket in the middle, and finally coastal dune forest and beaches in the Woody Cape section along the coast. This coastal section has the largest sand dune complex in the southern hemisphere, and it also includes a group of offshore islands that protects the largest populations of African penguins and Cape gannets in the world, as well as a sizeable Cape fur seal colony.

All these different habitats are now connected to each other over conserved land, joined together in a contiguous fashion, whereas in the past there were only isolated pieces of protected areas in a vast area that was transformed into monoculture and urban development. (Granted, the national N2 highway still divides the coastal section from the rest of the park).

The reasoning goes that ‘islands’ or ‘pockets’ of nature will eventually die out and become sterile.  Species and habitats need to be connected if they are to survive, thrive and adapt. Especially nowadays with global warming, which is predicted to have a desiccating and heating affect over much of Southern Africa. Unless species can move to other areas, and adapt at the same time, South Africa will lose most of its biological diversity over the next few hundred years or so, with potentially disastrous consequences for humans.

However, as conservation manager John Adendorff told me, even Addo’s 180 000 hectares is not a very big piece of land if one considers the huge amount of urban and agricultural development around the park. ‘It’s a highly managed park, and we monitor animal populations very closely to see how they are impacting on the vegetation.’

Addo Elephant National Park

An Elephant takes a lunch break

Today there are more than 600 elephants in Addo, at a density of about 2,8 elephants per square kilometre, perhaps the highest in Africa. ‘They’ve got it pretty good here,’ John said smiling. It’s incredible to think that at one stage there were only 11 left in the whole Eastern Cape. Hell has turned into paradise for the ellies.

The only reason that park authorities aren’t more worried about an overpopulation of elephant is because of the thicket biome. It’s a remarkable habitat, and at its core is spekboom, a succulent bush which not only sequestrates as much carbon from the atmosphere as rainforests, but also sustains some of the highest densities of wildlife in the world.

Park manager Norman Johnson tells me that “the elephants now are so successful that they’re becoming a nice problem. At some stage, we’ll need to look at controlling the population.”

But culling is not even considered as one of the options – instead, SANParks are looking to drop more fences between the different sections of the park, allowing the elephants to roam more widely, and also thereby introducing natural stresses into the elephant’s reproduction cycles. By forcing the elephants to roam further for water and food, growth rates in the population should slow down. And then there’s always contraception, which is the next best alternative.

The last few days I’ve had some good sightings of elephant and buffalo, and although it’s been raining a lot, today there was some sunshine.

I’ve had a chance to explore the main sections, where the Big Five hang out, and also the Zuurberg mountain section, where I went for a short horse ride this afternoon with ranger Thembelane Keye. It’s quite amazing to drive twenty odd kilometres from the subtropical heat of the main section, and in no time enter the cool, windy mountains where fynbos and grassland plateaus are the norm. Reminds me of the Baviaanskloof and Gamkaberg Nature Reserve.

Well, that’s a long blog from me today, but I’ve been hibernating from the rain like the rest of the animals here. But now that the rain has stopped, I hope to post more photos and blogs. The sun’s just about to go down, and I’m going to put some kudu wors on my braai. Addo Main Camp is pretty, and the chalets looks over a little valley, where hyenas and jackal seem to hang out at night (I can hear both species calling while I lie in bed).

The history of the preservation of the elephants is assuredly an epic in game conservation. In this manner, the bush, clad in hazy myster, is being preserved for future generations as an unspoilt facet on the face of the Masterly creation.’ – The Addo Elephants, A National Parks Board publication (published at a time when this little book cost 50c!)
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Have you been to the Addo Elephant National Park? Tell us about your experience there in the comment box below.


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