Spanning across some 60,500 hectares of land, the Southern Cape indigenous forests stretch from George to Tsitsikamma in the East. The forests which were formerly managed by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry include Farleigh, Goudveld, Gouna, Diepwalle and Tsitsikamma. These are the largest complex of indigenous forests in South Africa.
Scientists have recorded over 465 plant species in the forests, over 22 species of amphibians, 24 reptile species, 84 species of water birds, 305 species of birds and 290 mammal species in the Garden Route National Park (GRNP). According to the IUCN (2001) categories that were used to evaluate the threat status of the South African mammals (Friedmann & Daly 2004), the GRNP protects populations of twenty-eight (28) red data book species. In the Threatened Categories, 7.1% of the Park’s mammals are listed as Endangered (EN) and 14% as Vulnerable (VU).
It was estimated that about 3 000 elephants once roamed the Cape Floristic Region in pre-colonial times, of which about 1 000 occupied the Outeniqua-Tsitsikamma area. In the late 1800s between 400 and 500 elephants remained and by 1900, only 30 to 50 elephants were left in the Knysna area.
This small population dwindled even further and recent attempts to determine the elephant population status included a genetic study, photographic identification, surveys and sightings, all with varying results, and ranging between 1 and 5 elephants. SANParks continues to monitor the Knysna elephants, a programme which was initiated in 1987 by the Forestry Department.
Although previous monitoring efforts relied mostly on tracking, seeing and photographing the elephants, preliminary data indicates that these approaches may be disturbing to the elephants, and therefore all the monitoring techniques currently used are non-intrusive to them.
A popular belief that the Knysna elephants are genetically unique, was challenged by recent studies, showing that these elephants once belonged to a larger, continuous southern African population, of the same sub-species as the African elephant, Loxodonta africana.
These elephants’ genetic uniqueness, or rather lack thereof, has been used by some as a measurement of their conservation value. Basing elephants’ conservation value on their genetic status alone however, ignores their potential role as an ecological role player.
Other mammals spotted in the forest recently include leopards, Honey badgers, Blue duiker, caracal, bushpig, bushbuck, genet, Cape grysbok, Cape grey mongoose, porcupine, Vervet monkeys and baboons.
• Although forests are resistant to alien invasion, Johan Brard (2012) recorded 39 invaders in the forest. Visit the site www.ispotnature.org to spot and report any invaders of the forest.
• Elephants are a ‘keystone species’, essential for the integrity of the ecosystem. Elephants affect ecological processes through their feeding, digging and movement, and contribute to biodiversity by dispersing seeds, opening thickets, making browse more available to smaller herbivores, making water accessible in dry river beds, and promoting nutrient re-cycling.
• White-tailed mongoose, reddish-grey musk shrew, Cape gerbil, Cape golden mole and water rat are terrestrial mammals whose distribution ranges fall short of the GRNP but may occur in the area (State of Knowledge Report, 2015).