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By Jim Freeman

Journalist


Addo Elephant Park: Home to the world’s most ‘chilled’ elephants

In 90 years, Addo Elephant National Park has grown its elephant population by over 5 000%, saving the population from near-extinction.


How do you distinguish between an Addo elephant and one from the Kruger National Park?

Easy: elephants from the Eastern Cape are “chilled”, boet.

Pachyderms are synonymous with Addo Elephant National Park, and their laid-back-around-humans behaviour sets them apart from their testy northern compatriots – surprising given their reputedly long memories.

When Addo was proclaimed on 3 July, 1931, they’d been hunted almost to extinction in the province – and only 11 remained.

In 90 years, the number has grown to more than 600, and Addo, which initially measured just over 2 000 hectares, now covers a terrestrial area of nearly 180 000ha.

addo elephant
A ‘chilled’ Addo elephant. Picture: Jim Freeman

An additional 114 000ha make up the AENP Marine Protected Area, making it the only South African national park to offer the “Big Seven” (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, Cape buffalo, Southern Right whale and Great White shark).

Addo is the fourth-largest in size of the national parks behind Kruger, Kalahari Gemsbok and Richtersveld.

In 2019-2020, Addo welcomed 277 350 visitors through its gates. This number was exceeded only by the Table Mountain (3 million visitors), Kruger (1.8 million) and Garden Route (471 500) operations.

Yet the first official tourist arrived in Addo only in 1981.

The park’s history is one of Africa’s most remarkable conservation stories. Conflict between humans and elephants came to a head in 1919 when government, urged by farmers who said they were destroying crops and “stealing” their water, appointed Major PJ Pretorius to kill the remaining animals in the province.

buffalo
Old Buffalo. Picture: Jum Freeman

Pretorius was extremely efficient, killing 114 elephant and capturing two calves that he sold to the circus later to become known as Boswell-Wilkie within a year.

The slaughter sparked widespread disgust, and the extermination programme was halted. Only 16 elephant were left and, perhaps sensing his sympathy to their plight, sought shelter on the farm of JT Harvey.

Addo had its genesis when the National Parks Act was promulgated in 1926 and the Kruger came into being. This was immediately followed by a proposal to create a similar facility in the Eastern Cape with the sole purpose of saving the remaining handful of elephants.

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At the time of Addo’s establishment in 1931, the number was down to 12 when the first park warden, Harold Trollope, drove them from their farm refuge to their new sanctuary with shotgun blasts and fireworks.

One spooked bull charged his men and he was forced to shoot it.

Caracal
Caracal. Picture: Jim Freeman

The elephant population continued to dwindle: the animals had acquired a taste for the citrus fruit cultivated in the area and, without effective fencing to enclose them, they broke out whenever the urge took them.

Some died at the hands of farmers, while others were killed in collisions with trains on the line running just outside the northern border of what is now the main section of the park.

A solution was found in the 1940s when one of Trollope’s successors, Graham Armstrong, devised a trample-proof fence that’s still in use in parts of the park; 4m lengths of used tramline planted 10m apart and set 1.6m in the ground.

The 350kg rail-posts were strung with steel cable from which sturdy wooden “droppers” were suspended. Each rail-post weighed over 350kg.

Only the legendary 50-year-old Hapoor ever bested the fence and escaped from the park in 1968. Sadly, he resisted recapture and was shot.

Motorists are advised at the entrance to the park that “dung beetles have right of way”, and you can usually identify regular visitors by the periodic jinks they make in the road for no apparent reason.

I love Addo; I try to visit the park every year and it’s not just because I have an Eastern Cape heritage. There are just so many aspects to the place, some of which – like the Zuurberg section – I’ve yet to experience.

All I can say – from my heart and soul – is many happy returns.

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