The Eastern Cape’s Addo Elephant National Park was established in 193I to prevent the last of the region’s once mighty elephant herds from being blasted into oblivion. The locals had become fed up with the bolshie pachyderms damaging their properties and threatening their lives so the government had sent down one Major Pretorius to sort them out. And sort them out he did.
Bang, bang, bang went his rifle and within no time the elephant problem ended. Thankfully though, there were a few people who thought it would be a shame if the Eastern Cape lost the mighty beasts altogether, and so the Addo Elephant Park was born – a tiny place where the last 11 jumbos in the Sunday’s River Valley lived in relative peace – and were fed with daily deliveries of oranges.
It was pretty much just a zoo back then, a sort of circus attraction that brought in tourists but had little conservation value. Now, however, things are very different. From a humble 2 000 hectares, the park has expanded into a megapark of some 168 000 hectares covering six different habitats: Nama Karoo; fynbos; forest; subtropical thicket; coastal belt and marine. Impressive indeed. In fact because the ‘new and improved’, Addo Elephant National Park focuses on marine as well as terrestrial conservation, its slogan is ‘The only protected place in the world where you can see the Big Seven’, by which it means elephant buffalo, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, Southern Right Whale and the scary great white shark.
The Alexandria dunefield (the largest dunefield in the Southern Hemisphere) is now part of Addo, as are the seven Algoa Bay islands, which together harbour the world’s largest Cape Gannet breeding colony and more than 4096 of South Africa’s penguins. There are seal colonies and Roseate Tern nesting sites, as well as numerous important fish and perlemoen breeding areas deep beneath the surface. So perhaps Addo should find a new name for itself. But of course elephants are a big part of its history and are still the number one drawcard – so ‘Elephant Park’ it’s likely to stay.
The Colchester section in the south, which has been opened up partly to accommodate the growing herds of pachyderms, is just one of many new areas that have been incorporated into Addo. The reason for this expansion is because the focus of the park is no longer on saving individual species, but rather on saving entire habitats, some of which are exceedingly rare. One such habitat is the Alexandria dunefield, a magnificent rolling landscape of cream-coloured mountains covering 15 800 hectares and stretching some 50 kilometres along the coast. But it’s not only the rare animal and other species living among the dunes that gain from the park’s protection. Humans, or at least those living nearby, also benefit, as rainwater that’s filtered through the sand is siphoned off in a controlled manner to provide drinking water to nearby communities. At the same time, underground freshwater ‘rivers’ from the same source travel far out to sea and mix with the ocean, thereby creating unusual yet crucial conditions for the thousands of marine species that live and breed out there. Should these ancient flows be disrupted (by an increase in human use, for instance), the environmental and economic consequences for South Africa could be disastrous.
The dunefields are also important for cultural reasons, because scattered among them are numerous prehistoric shell middens left by people from a long gone race who gathered there and ate heartily from the available seafood. Thank heavens it’s all being protected, then. Another biome that’s being saved comprises the lovely fragments of forest which are all that remain of the unbroken canopy that once ran down the coast. Most of this was swept aside to make way for cattle pastures, but the bits that remain have been incorporated into the Woody Cape section of Addo. The dream, of course, would be to link up the remaining patches to regenerate a forest that partially resembled the original. But SANParks cannot pursue this because the land is too important for dairy farming.
How to travel there.