Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Addo elephants and friends

 Michael – Thursday

A couple of weekends ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Addo Elephant National Park with two friends, Ken and Sharon.

Map showing the extent of Addo

Currently, the park stretches about 130 km west to east and 80 km north to south, and encompasses five of South Africa’s seven biomes. It even includes some marine areas. It lies close to South Africa’s sixth largest municipality, Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape so attracts local as well as foreign tourists. Probably the last time I visited the park was about fifty years ago, and in those days it covered only a small area. The elephants were held in a separate enclosure and you could only watch them from outside the fence. In fact, the only time you were likely to see them was in late afternoon when truckloads of oranges and vegetables were dumped into the enclosure over the fence near the camp and the elephants came to have their snack. It was all a bit zooish. It’s totally different today. The park has a many times larger area, several overnight camps, and extensive roads, some sealed. The elephants go where they like, and for food they have to settle for the thick shrub vegetation that covers most of the area. Ken is an honorary ranger for the Garden Route National Park, and knowledgeable about Addo and its wildlife, so it was a privilege as well as a great pleasure to visit Addo with them.

The camp we stayed at is well spread out, and each chalet nestles privately in the thick bush.

View across the camp

At this time of year, the Karoo Boer-bean splashes red through the bush

The elephant theme even extends to the towels!

The area has a rather unsavory history. By 1900, most of the elephants in the area had been shot by ivory hunters, and much of the other game had gone the same way. The remaining elephants were causing damage to the crops and infrastructure in the area, and in 1900 a local hunter was killed by one. This sparked an outcry to “deal with” the elephants once and for all. In 1919 a professional hunter was tasked with eliminating them, and over the next few months he shot 114 and captured and sold two young calves to a circus. A year later, there were only 16 elephants left. Only the intervention of some sympathetic farmers saved the Addo elephants from extinction.

Spot the tuskless ones

Most of the females lack tusks, which is believed to be an effect of the past ivory hunting. It was once thought that the Addo elephants were a different subspecies, but they aren’t significantly genetically distinct from the ones in the Kruger National Park area. Perhaps this error was fortunate. Possibly the Addo park would never have existed if there hadn’t been a belief that something genetically unique was being preserved.

A rare sight of the Caracal or African Lynx
Love those ears!

Now, in addition to the animals that always lived in the area, some of the larger herbivores and even lions have been reintroduced. We saw a magnificent black-maned lion (apparently known as Jack) near the fence. Sharon spotted him with binoculars. He was so far away that you could hardly see him with the naked eye.

Flightless dung beetle at work

Another important species endemic to the area that is being protected at Addo is at almost the opposite end of the animal spectrum from the elephant – the flightless dung beetle, only about four centimetres long. Most dung beetles spend their time flying around pretty randomly on the look-out for dung – elephant dung is a particular favorite – for food and brood material for their grubs, but this species has no wings. This cramps their search style, and the fact that they can’t warm up by flying means that temperature control is an issue. Sometimes they feed and night, sometimes during the day.

Addo road sign
After rain they are all over the place, and after a day of rain, Ken had to  zig-zag along the road to avoid them. It’s claimed that they are the only  animals proven to use the Milky Way for navigation on dark nights, but  I’m not quite sure how that works. Apparently, they see light as a slit and so they can orient themselves relative to the brightest point. (“Navigate” means they don’t go round in circles, which is not an efficient way of finding dung. Or anything else.)

Another tricky post-rain pedestrian

It’s a great area to visit and one which is malaria free. The best part is that the elephants are completely unconcerned about cars. That is not the case in the Kruger area where one of my friends came back from a game drive with a smashed wing mirror and terrified passengers to prove it. Sharon took the video. I wouldn’t try this in Kruger…

Don't try this at home!

I’m looking forward to meeting these two fellows again one of these days!



  1. Visiting such parks renews one's soul and changes you forever. The majesty of the elephants is something you can never forget.

    1. Yes, that's spot on. It's also highly addictive as Annamaria points out below!

  2. You know, Michael, that Kwei’s words above describe exactly my experience of being in the bush. After my first four days, I was overwhelmed with homesickness at the thought of having to leave. Thank you for this vicarious visit. I am already planning for this time next year. CANNOT WAIT!

    1. Wonderful if you can visit again! Hopefully next year I'll also be able to visit the US. And Bouchercon in Minneapolis.